Friday, May 27, 2016
This is the conclusion of a series of posts concerning the films starring Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee.
What was the greatest Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee movie? Once again, we have to qualify that question by asking another one--is the best Cushing/Lee movie the greatest one that they just happened to have been in, or the one that best exemplifies the talents of both men?
One would assume that the best Cushing/Lee movie has to be one that was produced by Hammer Films. The duo appeared together in eight films for Hammer:
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
HORROR OF DRACULA
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
DRACULA A.D. 1972
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA
What's interesting about the Hammer Cushing & Lee films is that in most of them the two are basically trying to kill each other. In THE GORGON and SHE, they did not engage in mortal combat, even though their characters probably would have liked to. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is the only Hammer Cushing/Lee film in which the duo do not play bitter enemies, although it has to be said the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Henry Baskerville is not a warm one.
It is the Cushing/Lee films of the 1970s--the ones that are usually not considered on the same level as the Hammers--which give the two actors more screen time with each other, and more diverse roles. Cushing & Lee play friends (or at least acquaintances) in I, MONSTER, HORROR EXPRESS, and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. They also get a major amount of screen time together in 1972's THE CREEPING FLESH. The Hammer films Cushing & Lee starred in made them icons, but their 1970s work gave them the opportunity to work as an actual team.
If you believe that the greatest Cushing/Lee movie is the one that is the best film overall, in my opinion it would be HORROR OF DRACULA. I've already stated my belief that Dr. Van Helsing is Peter Cushing's greatest role, and Count Dracula is Christopher Lee's greatest role. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN started Hammer's Gothic cycle, but it was the follow-up success of HORROR OF DRACULA that cemented it. If Cushing & Lee had never made another horror film after HORROR OF DRACULA, their performances in it would still have given them status as Monster Movie icons. I would also submit that the climax of HORROR OF DRACULA is the greatest single movie sequence ever featuring Cushing & Lee.
Other Cushing & Lee films that deserve to be at the top of the list include THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY. CURSE should get a fair amount of credit for being the first "real" Cushing & Lee movie, while every time I see THE MUMMY I like it more and more (especially after seeing the magnificent looking Blu-ray of it released last year by Warner Home Video). On some of the Facebook comments for this series of posts, a few mentioned THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES as the best Cushing/Lee outing.
HORROR EXPRESS has to be mentioned as one of the best Cushing & Lee films--and many would venture that it is the best overall. HORROR EXPRESS features the duo as a real team--working together and fighting the "bad guys" side-by-side. HORROR EXPRESS delightfully takes advantage of the presumed on (and off) screen personas of the two men--Lee as Prof. Saxton is austere and a bit snobbish, while Cushing's Dr. Wells is warm and eccentric. Cushing and Lee play off of each other wonderfully here--one imagines that they worked out all sorts of acting and dialogue business among themselves before they went in front of the cameras. It's ironic that a low-budget Spanish production that had one of the most implausible scripts the duo ever worked on gave Cushing & Lee the ability to do things together as actors that they had never been able to do before (or later on). It's always exciting and dynamic to see Cushing & Lee in one of their many titanic clashes--but the many fans of both men simply adore the fact that HORROR EXPRESS has them as compatriots, since it is well established that Cushing & Lee were great friends in real life. (And of course HORROR EXPRESS has the greatest Cushing & Lee line of dialogue of all time: "Monster!? We're British you know!")
I would also include THE CREEPING FLESH as one of the best Cushing & Lee pairings. It's not a "fun" monster flick--it's more of a dark tale concerning repression and family secrets--and that may be why it is not as popular as some of the other Cushing/Lee match-ups. But it is very good as an overall film, and as a showcase for Cushing & Lee.
When it comes to most of the other Cushing/Lee films....once again writing this series of posts has reminded me how little screen time the two of them actually shared. The two men were very rarely used to the best of their abilities, and that's a shame. I would even go so far to say that the greatest Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee movie may not have ever been made--maybe it was in some alternate universe. Maybe somewhere there's a Doctor Who movie with Peter as the Doctor and Christopher as the Master...or an adaptation of a Lovecraft story starring the duo...or a World War II tale starring the men as British military officers...or maybe even someone actually made an idea of mine: GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND (my contribution to an Imaginary Film Blogathon, starring Cushing & Lee, of course).
In my opinion the greatest Cushing/Lee film overall is HORROR OF DRACULA, and the greatest Cushing/Lee team-up is HORROR EXPRESS. But really anytime we get to see these men in the same scene, no matter what the movie, is a great moment. It's a credit to both men that there doesn't seem to be a group of "Cushing only" fans or "Lee only" fans. There's definitely a "Karloff" group of fans and a "Lugosi" group...and the admirers of each have no problems sniping at the other group's hero. I've never heard of any Cushing fans dissing Lee or vice-versa. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee will forever be linked together--and I'm sure both men would fell proud of that.
By the way....if you need to get just one book about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I highly recommend Mark A. Miller's CHRISTOPHER LEE AND PETER CUSHING AND HORROR CINEMA: A FILMOGRAPHY OF THEIR 22 COLLABORATIONS from McFarland Publishers. It was an invaluable resource in the writing of this series of posts.
And since we're on the subject of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, let's give proper credit to Ted Newsom, who brought together Cushing & Lee to narrate the documentary FLESH AND BLOOD: THE HAMMER HERITAGE OF HORROR, in 1994. It would be the very last time Cushing & Lee would get to spend time with each other--Cushing would pass away later that summer.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
Today I continue my examination of the films in which Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared. We start out with.....
ISLAND OF THE BURNING DAMNED (aka NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT)
Cushing, Lee, and director Terence Fisher are reunited in this underwhelming science-fiction tale. Like most British sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and 60s, most of the action takes place in a pub! Cushing and Lee are both "good guys" here, but they really have very little interaction with one another. Another one of their parings that does not make the most of their talents.
SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN
This Amicus/AIP co-production is a very good science-fiction/political conspiracy thriller, but it is now most remembered for having Vincent Price, Lee, and Cushing in the cast...and wasting that prime opportunity. Price has more of a supporting role, while Lee gets less than that, and poor Cushing is in it for about a minute before he's killed off. The three titans of terror do not all appear on-screen together at one time (Price and Lee do share some scenes at the end, but it's not enough). Why you would put these three men in the same film and not use them properly is a question that monster fans have been asking for years. I know this sounds like heresy, but maybe SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN would have been better served if the Terrific Trio were not in it.
ONE MORE TIME
Cushing and Lee do cameos as Baron Frankenstein and Count Dracula in this "comedy" directed by Jerry Lewis and starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. The bit isn't much--you can watch it on YouTube (trust me, you don't need to sit through the entire film--unfortunately I have). Even the cameo doesn't do them justice--Cushing and Lee are at the back of the shot, and they're barely in focus.
THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD
Another anthology tale from Amicus. Cushing and Lee star in separate stories of their own, and do not share any scenes. This is one of Amicus' best films, and Cushing and Lee both get a chance to shine--although I have to say my favorite tale in this movie is the final one with Jon Pertwee and Ingrid Pitt.
This is another version of Stevenson's The Strange Case od Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Christopher Lee playing "Dr. Marlowe" and "Mr. Blake". This is one of Lee's best performances, and he (and the movie) doesn't get enough credit. Cushing plays Marlowe's friend Utterson...but, as usual, the duo wind up in a fight to the death at the climax.
DRACULA A.D. 1972
Hammer Films reunited Lee & Cushing in their most iconic roles as Dracula and Van Helsing (or more accurately, a direct descendant of Dr. Van Helsing) in this modern day variation on the classic vampire story. Fans of the famous acting duo get the treat of watching two different battles between them--one at the beginning and one at the end. I have a personal fondness for this movie--there's something endearingly goofy about it, and there's nothing better than seeing Cushing/Van Helsing and Lee/Dracula square off.
Due to its long-time public domain status, this may be one of the most well-known (and enjoyed) Cushing & Lee movies ever. The two are rival scientists, stuck aboard a train speeding through Russia, and dealing with a frozen "missing link" that happens to contain the essence of an alien creature. This is really the first film in which Cushing & Lee work together all the way through--this time they actually are a team. For all those that have complained that the duo were wasted in most of their features, HORROR EXPRESS is like a Christmas present. One can only imagine if there had been other movies made based on the continuing adventures of Professor Saxton and Dr. Wells. I will discuss this movie in further detail in Part Three of this series of posts.
THE CREEPING FLESH
An excellent film directed by Freddie Francis, THE CREEPING FLESH has Cushing & Lee as rival scientists again, but this time they are half-brothers, and they are certainly not working together. Cushing is trying to cure "evil" in humanity for all time, but he backfires badly--due in part to the machinations of his coldly jealous brother Lee. The duo get far more to do here, acting wise, than in most of their more famous pairings.
NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT
This film was made by Christopher Lee's short-lived production company. It's a valiant effort, but this tale about wealthy elders trying to inhabit the minds of young children would have been more effective as an hour long X-FILES episode (just think of Lee's character as Mulder and Cushing's character as Scully). Cushing & Lee get to be on the same side again, and they once again play friends, even though they don't get to show too much warmth for each other (at one point Cushing even yells at Lee). Not the best movie in the world, but a great chance to see the duo as contemporary "normal" characters.
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA
The last Hammer film to feature Cushing & Lee, and their last go-round as Van Helsing and Dracula. The movie is a direct sequel to DRACULA A.D. 1972, and in my opinion not as good--it has a very nasty feel to it, with sacrifices to the Devil and plague viruses. We do get to see one scene where Lee's Dracula, in disguise as a Howard Hughes-like tycoon, confronts Van Helsing. Lee uses a Bela Lugosi accent, and this scene Dracula and Van Helsing exchange more dialogue than all their other Hammer appearances put together! This is also the last film in which Cushing & Lee engage in a match to the death.
As I stated in my last post, this is the only Cushing/Lee movie I have never seen. From what I do know about it, I don't think I have missed much. I am aware that the duo do not share any scenes in it--apparently Cushing has little more than a cameo.
HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS
This was Cannon Films' attempt to make an "old-fashioned" chiller. Old fashioned is right--this movie looks tame compared to the movies Cushing & Lee made twenty years before. Not only do we get Cushing & Lee, we also get Vincent Price and John Carradine--and we also get to see more of Desi Arnaz Jr. than we do any of the Gruesome Foursome. What really gets me about this one is the fact that even though Cushing & Lee are in several scenes together, they have almost no interaction whatsoever. The last Cushing/Lee movie is like a lot of the others--a wasted opportunity.
Now that we have come to the end, it's time to decide what is the greatest Peter Cushing/ Christopher Lee movie of them all. I'll state my conclusions in Part Three of this series.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Tomorrow, May 26, is the anniversary of Peter Cushing's birth (1913), and the following day, May 27, is the anniversary of Christopher Lee's birth (1922). Around this time I always try to post something relating to these talented gentlemen. They are my two favorite actors of all time, and they have both personally inspired me in several ways.
I decided this year to do a series of posts on what was the greatest Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee movie of all time. The answer to that is more complicated than it would appear. Cushing and Lee were officially in 22 feature films together....but in many of them, the duo never even shared a scene. The two actors are so inextricably linked that one assumes that they spent hours and hours of screen time dealing with one another in some way--the reality is that in most of their pairings they barely got to exchange dialogue. The continuing legend of the on-and-off screen Cushing & Lee partnership has far overshadowed what actually transpired on film.
What really links Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee together is the genre of fantastic film. The Cushing & Lee screen team is very different from other classic movie teams such as William Powell & Myrna Loy, or Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster. Cushing & Lee spent an inordinate amount of time trying to kill one another on screen. (Is there any other famous screen duo you can say that about? Karloff & Lugosi?) Many times Cushing & Lee were cast in a film simply because their names would give a certain horror film a special cache. Other great movie duos such as Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers had entire films produced and developed to showcase their personas. When it comes to Cushing & Lee, most of the films they made together fall short in making the most of their unique talents. I can't tell you how many times I've watched a Cushing/Lee movie and thought to myself: "If only the script had went this way..."
What Cushing & Lee were able to accomplish was to create iconic characters in a genre that many actors find difficult to perform in. Both men now have huge fan bases which seem to continue to grow year by year. Many have said that Cushing & Lee wasted their talents making so many low-budget fantastic films, but the fact is that the duo are more popular now than ever, and many of their acting contemporaries who starred in supposedly more "distinguished" work are all but forgotten today.
When it comes to the Cushing & Lee movies, how exactly does one define "best"? Is it the best movie that Cushing & Lee happened to have appeared in, or the movie that best showcases them together on-screen? For example, let's take a look at the first two films that featured appearances by Cushing & Lee. In Olivier's 1948 film version of HAMLET, Peter Cushing played the role of Osric, while Lee, who happened to be working on another film in the same studio, sneaked onto the set as an extra. HAMLET went on to win the Best Picture Oscar, and it is considered one of the greatest film adaptations of Shakespeare's works. So shouldn't this be the "greatest" Cushing/Lee movie?
The second film that Cushing & Lee both made appearances in was John Huston's 1952 version of MOULIN ROGUE. Cushing & Lee have so little screen time here it's easy to miss them if you are not paying close attention--but MOULIN ROGUE is a critically acclaimed film, so shouldn't this also be looked upon as a "great" Cushing & Lee movie?
For me a true Cushing & Lee movie is one that has the duo actually interact with one another, or at least one that gives both men major roles. For the purposes of this series of posts, I'm going to go through all of the other official Cushing/Lee movies (in the order of production) and examine what relationship, and what interaction, their characters have with one another in each outing. The only Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee movie I have not seen is ARABIAN ADVENTURE, a title in which the duo share no scenes together.
We begin with....
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
The very first "real" Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee movie, the very first Hammer Films color Gothic shocker, the first Frankenstein film made in color, etc. Anyone with any basic knowledge of classic films knows that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of the most important and influential horror films ever made. It's rather fitting that in the very first scene in which Cushing & Lee actually interact with one another, Lee is trying to strangle Cushing to death. Cushing's Baron Frankenstein creates Lee's pathetic creature, and, as in most of the other Hammer Frankenstein outings, he's also responsible for the destruction of his handiwork. This is Cushing's show all the way, but many forget how good Lee is here. Yes, his makeup is nowhere near the legendary status of the Universal Frankenstein's monster, but in a way that helps Lee's performance. Lee portrays the Monster as a shambling, confused misfit, a being with nothing but pure animal tendencies. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN has its detractors, but it can be said that it is the most important Cushing & Lee movie.
HORROR OF DRACULA
The ultimate Cushing & Lee movie? Well, I consider Van Helsing to be Peter Cushing's greatest role, and I consider Dracula to be Christopher Lee's greatest role. When the average person thinks of Cushing & Lee, they usually imagine them as Van Helsing and Dracula in a battle to the death. The duo do not get to face off against each other until the very end of the film....but since that ending is one of the greatest in movie history, that's more than enough.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
This is the very first movie in which Cushing & Lee exchange dialogue! Peter gives one of his best performances as Conan Doyle's immortal detective Sherlock Holmes, while Christopher gets to play a "normal" person for a change. Lee is never given enough credit for his acting range, and he fills the role of Sir Henry Baskerville very nicely. (Let me run this one by you--could you imagine Bela Lugosi playing Sir Henry??) Despite the fact that Cushing & Lee here are both "good" guys, their on-screen relationship is still a bit mixed--Cushing's Holmes certainly doesn't want any harm to come to Sir Henry, but he also sees him as nothing more than the main factor of a mystery that needs to be solved.
Once again Cushing & Lee spend a lot of time trying to kill one another. At least here Lee gets a large flashback which explains his motivation, and he gets extra points over Cushing by being the most impressive--and dangerous--mummy ever put on the big screen.
THE GORGON (aka Joshua Kennedy's favorite film of all time)
Despite the success of their late-50s Hammer horrors, it wouldn't be until 1963 that Cushing, Lee, and director Terence Fisher would reunite at Hammer for another Gothic tale. THE GORGON is looked upon as the movie where Cushing & Lee supposedly play the "other one's" typical role--Cushing is a man who is cold, angry, and repressed, while Lee plays a quirky Professor who solves the supernatural mystery. The duo have only one real important scene together, and, as usual, they look like they want to tear each other apart. Probably the most unique of the Cushing/Lee match-ups.
DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS
The very first anthology film of terror tales from Amicus productions, a company that would have a major impact on the acting careers of Cushing & Lee. Both men have great roles here (and once again Lee has not seem to have gotten as much credit for his portrayal as Cushing has). I'm sure Freddie Francis had Cushing & Lee sit next to each other in the train compartment on purpose. Lee's snobby art critic regards Cushing's strange fortune teller with disdain--much to his later regret.
This is Hammer's attempt at a large-scale action-adventure epic, based on H. Rider Haggard's famous novel. Cushing & Lee are really nothing more than guest stars here, but their performances are so solid that one wishes they had far more screen time (I could say that about every Cushing & Lee movie). As in THE GORGON, they only have one real important scene together, but it does a lot to explain the character of Lee's High Priest.
This is the first Cushing/Lee movie where the two men's characters know each other at the beginning of the film, and the first where the two are friends! (That still doesn't stop Cushing from killing Lee during the story.) One of the most underrated of the Cushing & Lee team-ups, with excellent camera work from director Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox. Still, this is more of a Cushing movie than a Lee one.
Tomorrow we'll look at the remaining Cushing/Lee films--and we'll find out that the duo had far more screen time, and far better roles--in the 1970s than they did in their more famous Hammer outings.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Arrow Video puts out another great home video release with their special edition of John Milius' directorial debut, DILLINGER.
John Dillinger's stint as Depression-era America's Public Enemy No. 1 was brief, but it was enough to catapult him into a folk legend. Dillinger has appeared as a character in several movies and television shows, the most notably recent being Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009). Mann's version of Dillinger's criminal career was probably the most historically accurate--but John Milius' mythic take on the tale is by far more entertaining.
Milius made the inspired choice to cast Warren Oates as Dillinger instead of a younger, better-looking "leading man" type. Not only did Oates bear an uncanny resemblance to Dillinger, he was able to properly portray the bank robber's cocky charisma. Out of all the screen Dillingers, Oates is in my opinion the best--and if you want proof of that, just watch PUBLIC ENEMIES again and see how Johnny Depp, who is a better-looking "leading man" type, wound up giving a somewhat dour performance.
Oates as Dillinger is matched by Ben Johnson as another historical figure, Federal agent Melvin Purvis. Instead of sticking to the facts, Milius (who also wrote the script) does the John Ford route and "prints the legend" by making the movie a personal battle between Dillinger and Purvis. Long-time character actors Oates and Johnson make the most out of their leading roles, giving the story a true Midwest American flavor. (In PUBLIC ENEMIES, Michael Mann cast another better-looking leading man type as Purvis in Christian Bale--and just like Johnny Depp, Bale comes off as dull and uninspired.)
Milius mixes in many other famous gangster figures from the period, such as Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and a rather psychotic Baby Face Nelson (played by a young Richard Dreyfuss). Milius has this All-Star rogues gallery partake in several massive shoot-outs, climaxing with a vicious gunfight between Dillinger, his compatriots, and a group of G-Men led by Purvis at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin. The action is well-staged and to the point, without the excessive flourishes and ADD-style editing one sees in the 21st Century superhero epics. (Aspiring filmmakers could learn a lot by seeing how Milius uses violence in DILLINGER.)
Being that this was a 1970s exploitation flick from American-International (and Milius was a first-time director), DILLINGER did not have a very large budget. But in a way that played into the movie's favor. Filmed mostly in rural Oklahoma, DILLINGER has far more of a 1930s sensibility than most "big-time" movies that cover similar subjects (and yes, I have to include PUBLIC ENEMIES in that list). None of the actors come off as not fitting into the period--even Michelle Phillips as Dillinger's girlfriend. Barry De Vorzon's music reinforces the Depression-era feel. (The song "Red River Valley" is used--it was demanded by Milius and is one of the director's many homages to John Ford in this film.)
Because of John Milius' supposed beliefs, every one of the movies he either wrote or directed has been thoroughly examined for all sorts of political subtexts. In DILLINGER Milius eschews any sort of social commentary. There's no attempt to analyze why Dillinger has engaged in a life or crime, or any examination of how his upbringing might have affected him. (The closest Oates as Dillinger comes to revealing himself is when he admits he likes to steal other people's money.) Milius doesn't try to make Dillinger out to be some sort of class-conscious "hero", or a rebel against the system. Milius shows Dillinger as a bank robber, plain and simple. (When the movie begins, Dillinger is already well into his criminal career, and the movie ends with Dillinger's death in Chicago.) DILLINGER is the antithesis of the more renowned BONNIE AND CLYDE--Milius shows his disdain for that movie by having Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd disparage the infamous couple in a dialogue aside. Milius' main concern in DILLINGER is showing tough, hard men opposing one another in a tough, hard environment. Warren Oates has plenty of verve and panache, and we like watching him....but we don't necessarily admire him, or his choice of lifestyle. We don't feel sorry for him either (or any of the other gangsters seen in this film).
Every Arrow Video home video release is special, and DILLINGER is no different. This release comes with a Blu-ray and a DVD, and both discs have the same supplementary material. There are three different new interviews included with producer Lawrence Gordon, director of photography Jules Brenner, and composer Barry De Vorzon. All three give interesting accounts of what it was like making the film, and of course they offer several anecdotes on John Milius. An audio commentary by Stephen Prince is featured as well. Prince gives a fair amount of background material on the real John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, but he spends most of his time analyzing nearly every camera shot in the movie. A 24-page booklet is part of the package, which has an essay on Dillinger and Purvis by the redoubtable Kim Newman (is there any subject Newman doesn't know anything about?), and a 1973 interview with John Milius by John Austin. The booklet also has color photos from the film, including a couple of stunning shots of Michelle Phillips. This release also has a double-sided case cover sleeve. The one drawback to the extras is that John Milius himself is not personally involved--it would have been fascinating to hear what he thinks about his directorial debut today.
The picture quality for the DILLINGER Blu-ray is not spectacular, but I think that is due to the materials available than with anything on Arrow Video's part. Even though the audio is in mono, it is very robust--it's a bit of a shame that a movie with this many gunshots wasn't originally in 5.1 surround sound. All in all, this is another exemplary release from Arrow, and more proof that the company belongs in the same class as Criterion and Kino.
Before I end this post, there are a couple of personal stories I'd like to share which involve John Dillinger. In March of this year independent filmmaker Paul Lyzun and I visited our mutual friend Dan Hively in Indianapolis, IN. Not far from Dan's house is Crown Hill Cemetery, where we went to see the resting place of none other than John Dillinger.
The other story is more of a family legend. In 1934, John Dillinger and his gang robbed a bank in my hometown of South Bend, IN. According to my Dad, my paternal grandfather was walking in downtown South Bend on that day, and he supposedly watched Dillinger and his gang drive by during their getaway. I certainly can't confirm that story, by the way.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
ELSTREE 1976 is a new documentary from writer-director Jon Spira. The title refers to the location (Elstree Studios, North London) and the time (1976) that most of the filming of the first STAR WARS movie took place. The title is a bit of a misnomer--this documentary isn't so much of an examination of the production of STAR WARS as it is a glimpse at the lives of some of the many people who made a small contribution to the film.
The stars of ELSTREE 1976 do not have names like Hamill, Ford, or Fisher. Instead we get the stories of mostly bit players and extras, such as Garrick Hagon, who played Luke's friend Biggs, and Angus MacInnes, who played the X-Wing pilot Gold Leader during the Death Star battle ("Switching...to...targeting...computer..."). There are a couple famous names (famous at least among film geeks): David Prowse, who played Darth Vader, and Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. (Having Bulloch in this documentary is a bit of a cheat--I've met Bulloch and he's a nice guy, but he wasn't at Elstree in 1976 appearing in STAR WARS. If you think about it, having David Prowse is kind of a cheat as well--I certainly wouldn't put him in the same category as the other people featured in this film.)
Most of the 100-minute running time is taken up with the background stories of those participating in this project. Those who are interested in professional acting, or who wish to be actors, may find these stories interesting, while hard-core Star Wars fans may be impatient during these scenes. There really isn't a lot of information on the actual making of STAR WARS. ELSTREE 1976 gives the impression that, at least in the case of casting the bit players and extras, there was a bit of randomness to it.
The second half of the documentary is the best, as it deals with how the success of STAR WARS has impacted--or in some cases not impacted--the lives and careers of those featured in this film. The participants in ELSTREE 1976 feel a mixture of pride and sometimes frustration with the STAR WARS legacy. It is well known that David Prowse and Lucasfilm have an uneasy relationship, but here Prowse certainly doesn't come off as bitter or angry about his experience.
What really piqued my interest more than anything else in ELSTREE 1976 was the segments dealing with the autograph convention circuit. There apparently is something of a rift between those STAR WARS actors who had an official credit, and actually spoke dialogue, and those who did not have a credit or dialogue, and/or wore a costume and had their faces covered. The officially credited dialogue speaking performers feel that they were "real" actors, and they feel that those they consider "extras" should not be getting attention at the autograph tables. If you've ever been to an autograph convention you know that there is a huge amount of money in these things, and several screen actors today make most of their living off of them. The whole "who deserves to charge for an autograph" debate is one I find fascinating, and I kind of wish that ELSTREE 1976 had focused more on that (it would be very easy to do a whole feature-length documentary on the controversies surrounding the various geek culture autograph conventions).
ELSTREE 1976 has an even pace, and thankfully Jon Spira lets those who are interviewed move the story along instead of the editing or the visuals. This is a nice documentary with good intentions, and I believe that Star Wars fans should see it at least once--but don't expect a major analysis of the making of what I think is the greatest movie ever made.
Sunday, May 15, 2016
This year a number of famous films are having special anniversaries--films like CITIZEN KANE, the 1941 version of THE MALTESE FALCON, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, and ROCKY. 2016 happens to mark the 50th anniversary of the debut of a certain movie that holds a special place in my heart--the very first full-length theatrical release featuring the Caped Crusader, the 1966 BATMAN.
The 1966 BATMAN was spun off of the wildly successful ABC television series. Ironically, the BATMAN movie was supposed to have come out first, as a way to introduce the format of the show and the characters. The ABC Network asked the BATMAN production team to work on the series instead, so it could premier as a mid-season replacement. The show became such a huge hit that it was decided to go ahead with the feature film soon after filming of the first season came to an end.
The 1966 BATMAN movie is basically a giant super-sized version of the TV show--and for someone like me, that's enough. For those that don't know, BATMAN is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It made a huge impression on me as a kid, and Adam West is still something of a personal hero to me. When I first saw it I didn't see it as campy or funny--I took it seriously. I was mesmerized by it--the Batmobile, the BatCave, the bright primary colors, the tilted camera angles, the crazy villains, the fights--it really was a comic book come to life. Finding out that there was a BATMAN movie--with four super-villains in the same story!--was almost too much for my young mind to contemplate.
I first saw the 1966 BATMAN movie on Chicago's WGN Channel 9, which seemed to broadcast it a few times a year. I immediately thought it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen in my life. Not only did it feature an entire Gotham City Rogues Gallery (Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Lee Meriwether as Catwoman), it had a BatBoat! And a BatCopter! And a BatCycle! Add to that the Penguin's submarine, giant flying umbrellas, and a dehydrator that reduced people to powder--how could any 8 or 9 year old not have this film imprinted on his or her memory?
What's amusing when looking back on this film is how it makes no allowances whatsoever to those who have not seen one episode of the BATMAN TV show. There's no backstory, or flashback scenes, or overall explanations of who Batman is, or why he does what he does. We get no reasons why the bad guys are bad...they just are. The movie's story gets to the action right from the very first scene, and the pace doesn't let up until the very end. (There is a bit of a break when Bruce Wayne goes on a date with Miss Kitka AKA Catwoman, but it's not much of one.) The 1966 BATMAN movie is about as far away from the lumbering, "serious" two-and-a-half hour comic book epics of the 21st Century as you can get.
The budget for the BATMAN movie allowed it to incorporate things and ideas that the TV series never could. The footage of the new Bat-vehicles introduced in the movie would turn up many times during the rest of the BATMAN series' run. Instead of the same usual Gotham City street sets we see in the TV show, the movie has Batman & Robin interacting with real-life locations. The 1966 BATMAN movie may now look cheap compared to the CGI-filled genre spectaculars of today, but as a kid it all looked amazing to me.
The plot of the film--having four super-villains band together and dehydrating the members of the "United World" council--isn't all that far fetched from the plots of superhero movies made in the present day. (As a kid I thought the idea of turning someone into powder was genuinely unsettling.) All four of the villains get a chance to shine, but Catwoman, due to her masquerade as a Russian journalist named "Miss Kitka", gets the most screen time. To me, Julie Newmar will always be THE Catwoman. Newmar was unavailable when the BATMAN movie started shooting, so Lee Meriwether took her place. Meriwether certainly had the, um...physical requirements for the role, but while Julie Newmar's Catwoman exuded a sexy playfulness, Meriwether's Catwoman seems to be in a constant foul mood. If Julie had been in the film, the sub-plot of Bruce Wayne romancing Miss Kitka would have been even more unbelievable--how in the heck can Bruce not know Miss Kitka is actually Catwoman? With all due respect to Lee Meriwether, she's okay in the role--but she's not Julie Newmar.
There's so many other things I could go on and on about concerning this film--like the scene where Batman tries to fight off a shark by punching it over and over again, or the now famous (some would say infamous) "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" sequence. Thinking about the bomb sequence makes me realize that the two big superhero movies released in 2016 have collateral damage as a major part of their plots, and Batman was trying to avoid collateral damage 50 years earlier! I also like how during the BATMAN movie's opening credits, when one of the villains is shown, we hear a snippet of that particular villain's musical theme. One thing that gets forgotten about the BATMAN movie is how much Bruce Wayne gets to do. He not only has a fling with Miss Kitka, he participates in two different large-scale fight scenes. (During these fight scenes involving Bruce, notice how the comic book words do not appear on-screen....because Bruce is doing the fighting, not Batman!)
Watching the 1966 BATMAN movie on Blu-ray makes one realize how important color was to the TV show. The 1966 BATMAN universe doesn't just use color, it flaunts it. Mario Bava himself probably appreciated BATMAN (in Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK, the main character's hideout has a strong resemblance to the BatCave). For today's audiences who are used to comic-book movies with dark-tinged, desaturated color schemes, the 1966 BATMAN movie might seem overly garish--but that's how 1960s-era comic books looked. (I also have to point out that in 1966, many Americans did not have color television sets, so the 1966 BATMAN movie allowed several members of the audience to see what the show looked like in color for the very first time.)
The 1966 BATMAN movie can't be compared to the comic book films of the 21st Century. BATMAN is a totally different animal--at the time it was made there was absolutely nothing like it. Yes, it is campy, and it's cheesy, and yes, it is a far cry from the Batman character that has been established over the last forty years. But it is a lot more fun--and a lot more entertaining--than the supposed "real" Batman movies that have been made since Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989. Today's comic book movies try to act like they are nothing like comic books. The 1966 BATMAN movie is a giant super-sized comic book.
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Marvel & Disney's domination over 21st Century popular entertainment continues with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Despite the title and the mammoth publicity campaign surrounding it, the main theme of this film is not so much superheroes battling each other as it is the consequences of trying to accomplish supposedly good deeds.
The directors of this latest Marvel Universe outing are the Russo brothers, who made one of the best MCU movies with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. As in that film, the Russos bring a sense of political conspiracy thriller paranoia to the comic book mix, with the United Nations attempting to put the Avengers under bureaucratic control. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man is all for it, while Chris Evans as Captain America takes the opposing viewpoint. Each hero establishes his own "team", setting up one of the best and most elaborate comic book movie fights ever, staged at the Berlin Airport.
Many non-comic book fans have complained about the lack of collateral damage in the various superhero epics. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR puts a human face on all the destruction the Marvel film characters have engaged in through the past few years, giving the story a darker edge than the usual MCU fare. (The many, many fight scenes this time around have a bit more brutal level to them.) Don't presume, however, that CIVIL WAR is a depressing slog like BATMAN V SUPERMAN--the expected Marvel humor is very much present, but not enough to make the plot seem silly.
What really makes the Marvel movies work is that the filmmakers have now spent years establishing and refining a group of characters that the audience feels they know and want to watch. There's a ton of different superheroes on display in CIVIL WAR, but if you are familiar with the MCU, you are pretty well already clued in to each person's motivations during the story. It seems to me that Chris Evans doesn't get enough credit in playing Steve Rogers/Captain America, but he should. Being a stalwart, straight arrow good guy, and not coming off as pompous or unbelievable, is a lot harder than it looks. Evans is the rock that CIVIL WAR rests on, even though I thought his absolute devotion to his buddy Bucky AKA the Winter Soldier was misplaced. (Some on the internet have assumed that Cap and Bucky are more than "just friends"--I honestly don't see it that way.) Once again I must point out that critics have constantly mentioned that Superman is too much of a "goody goody" to be properly portrayed on the big screen--yet Marvel has done a fine job showcasing a similar character in Captain America.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man is particularly edgy and angst-filled here--it appears that Stark is back to his self-destructive ways. RDJ does get to show his beloved smarmy side in his interaction with the "new" Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland. This might be the best movie Spidey yet--although it is personally disconcerting that Peter Parker's Aunt May is now played by an actress who isn't that much older than me. Making his Marvel film debut is the Black Panther, impressively brought to life by Chadwick Boseman.
There's no point in me spending a lot of time analyzing CIVIL WAR. It is what it was designed to be--a large-scale genre action movie that provides grand entertainment to the masses. I know that there are some MCU haters out there, who feel that they have watered down the "true meaning" of the comics (whatever that might be). There are also those who try to claim that they are too "sophisticated" to enjoy a movie franchise that makes so much money. All the Marvel movies are well-crafted, and while I prefer some of them better than others, I honestly can't say that I have been greatly disappointed by any of them. I have to say that CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is in my personal top five of MCU entries. The one thing I would definitely like to see from Marvel in the future is a film featuring Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, with a major role in the script for Emily VanCamp's Sharon Carter.
Saturday, May 7, 2016
THE RANDOLPH SCOTT ROUND-UP is a two-disc DVD set from Mill Creek Entertainment which contains six different color Westerns from Columbia Pictures. The films were made between 1943 and 1953, and they all star Randolph Scott, of course.
Randolph Scott made so many Westerns over the course of his movie acting career that it's hard to keep track of them. Many of the Scott Westerns have the same type of plots, themes, and supporting casts--due no doubt to the fact that the actor produced several of them with his partner Harry Joe Brown, including the six titles in this set.
The movies featured in THE RANDOLPH SCOTT ROUND-UP have many similarities. In most of them Scott plays an acting or ex-Confederate soldier, and he also wears the same leather coat in just about all of them. Many actors make multiple appearances in this set--such as Claire Trevor and George Macready, who basically play the same type of characters in two different movies. The Scott-Brown producing team didn't just like using reliable talent over again, they also re-used many outdoor shooting locations--sharp-eyed viewers will notice the same rock formations cropping up in the films. If you do get this set, it might be a good idea to take your time watching it, instead of all at once.
The movies may resemble one another, but they are still all well-made and entertaining. I wouldn't consider any of them on the level of, say, the movies Randolph Scott made with Budd Boetticher (except maybe HANGMAN'S KNOT), but old-time Western fans will not be disappointed. They all run an average of about 85 minutes. There are three movies on each disc.
Disc One features:
THE DESPERADOES (1943) The back of the disc case says that this movie was the very first Technicolor production for Columbia. Randolph Scott plays a sheriff investigating a series of hold-ups which might involve an old friend of his (a very young Glenn Ford). Scott and Ford make a very good team, Evelyn Keyes is cute as Ford's love interest, and this is one of the films in the set where Claire Trevor plays a dance-hall girl with a heart of gold. Directed by Charles Vidor.
THE NEVADAN (1950) Scott goes undercover in this one to find where bandit Forrest Tucker has hidden his ill-gotten loot. The real villain behind everything is George Macready, which complicates things for Scott, since he's taken a shine for his spunky daughter (a dark-haired Dorothy Malone). This one is stolen by Jeff Corey and Frank Faylen as semi-comic brothers who belong to Macready's gang. Directed by Gordon Douglas.
SANTA FE (1951) Scott plays an ex-Confederate soldier who tries to forget the Civil War and start his life afresh by working on the railroads out West. His three brothers, however, still hate the Yankees, and they try to sabotage Scott's plans. I can't help but think that this is one of the films that gave Sergio Leone some of his ideas for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. This film was directed by actor Irving Pichel, who also played a small role in it and narrated the opening scene.
Disc Two contains:
MAN IN THE SADDLE (1951) The drama in this picture comes from a love triangle between Scott, his ranching rival (Alexander Knox), and a lady determined to better herself (Joan Leslie). A high-class articulate actor like Knox might seem out of place in a Western like this, but the Scott-Brown producing team seemed to have a fondness for upper-crust bad guys (see George Macready). The very underrated Andre De Toth directed this outing.
THE STRANGER WORE A GUN (1953) This movie has all sorts of interesting elements in it. The most noticeable one of all is that it was released in 3-D, which means we get to see bullets fired at the camera (and many things thrown at it as well). This movie is not presented in 3-D on this disc, but that's not a big deal...even without the effect, this picture is one of Scott's best. The story begins with Scott riding with Quantrill's Raiders during their attack on Lawrence, Kansas (there has to have been dozens of Westerns which have used this incident as part of their story). Scott feels guilty for his part in the raid and tries to redeem himself by helping a stage line out West that's he's been hired to rob. George Macready plays almost exactly the same role he played in THE NEVADAN, and Claire Trevor plays almost exactly the same role she played in THE DESPERADOES. Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine are two especially nasty fellows working for Macready, and Joan Weldon is the nice girl who is the daughter of the stage line owner. Andre De Toth, who directed the most famous 3-D film of all (1953's HOUSE OF WAX), takes the reins here.
HANGMAN'S KNOT (1952) This is by far the best film in the set. If one didn't know better, one would assume that it had been directed by Budd Boetticher. It wasn't--it was written & directed by Roy Huggins, a man best known for his television work. HANGMAN'S KNOT has a darker tone than the usual B movie Westerns of this period. Randolph Scott is the leader of a group of Rebel soldiers working undercover in Nevada. The group successfully attacks a Union Army wagon and makes off with the Yankee gold inside, only to find out that the Civil War ended a month earlier. Soon the entire territory is after Scott and his men, and they wind up under siege at a way station by a gang of renegades who are more interested in getting the gold than they are in seeing justice done. The situation of disparate characters holed up and fighting for their lives is a taut and suspenseful one--this is the movie THE HATEFUL EIGHT should have been. What really makes this a standout tale is the excellent supporting cast. Among the people stuck inside the way station with Scott's men is a proud Union nurse (Donna Reed), a weak opportunist (Richard Denning), and the mother of one of the men killed in the Union Army wagon attack (Jeanette Nolan). Lee Marvin is the hothead of Scott's group (you just know that he and Scott are going to tangle one way or another....and they do), and Claude Jarman Jr. is a young Confederate Scott watches over. I had never seen this film before, and I was very impressed with it. HANGMAN'S KNOT deserves more attention among classic Western buffs.
Mill Creek is a company known for "value" (some would say "cheap") home video product. I got this set for $8.25 on Amazon. It's safe to say that none of these films have been remastered in any way--the color on all of them seems a bit faded (especially for THE NEVADAN, which was made in the Cinecolor process). You get what you pay for--the movies here don't look terrible, but don't expect high-end quality. (There are no extras, by the way.) This is a great set for Western and Randolph Scott fans--I believe it's worth buying just for HANGMAN'S KNOT alone.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Abrams Comicarts has released a sequel to their highly popular book on the Topps STAR WARS trading cards. Naturally, this volume deals with the cards Topps produced for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
The Topps EMPIRE set was actually bigger that the set for STAR WARS (I honestly didn't realize this). The EMPIRE set consisted of three different series of cards--Series One and Series Two had a total of 132 cards each, and Series Three had 88 cards, for a grand total of 352. (The STAR WARS set had five series of 66 cards for a final total of 330.) All 352 individual cards--and their backs--are reproduced in this book, along with the 88 stickers included in the set. A set of 30 photocards produced by Topps for EMPIRE is reprinted as well.
Gary Gerani, who worked on both the STAR WARS and EMPIRE sets for Topps, provides a behind-the-scenes look on how the cards were put together. Gerani discloses that Topps wanted to make an even better set than the mega-selling STAR WARS one, and that the company was determined to use better and more diverse photos this time around. Going through this book I have to say that technically the EMPIRE cards really are better....the pictures are sharper and clearer, and there is a far greater selection of them. The EMPIRE cards feature a silver-like metallic border (in the third series the metallic border was gold-colored) that went well with the movie's cold, darker tone. Gerani reveals that he, and his Topps co-workers, did not find out about Darth Vader being Luke's father until seeing EMPIRE on the big screen--so the plot summaries on the back of the Series One cards were not able to give out the big secret.
Just like the first Topps STAR WARS trading card book, this one has a cover which is made to feel just like a trading card wax pack wrapper (an absolutely fantastic idea, in my opinion). The EMPIRE book also comes with four actual reprinted EMPIRE trading cards. This volume also has pictures of all the wax packs and boxes in which the EMPIRE cards were sold in.
I'm highly certain that this book will be just as popular as the STAR WARS trading card book. Buying this volume will be a lot less cheaper than trying to get an actual entire EMPIRE card set (and you won't have to worry about any cards getting damaged, either). Seeing all the Topps EMPIRE cards took me back to the Summer of 1980, and made me want to watch the movie yet again. I can't give out a more worthy compliment than that. Abrams Comicarts and Topps have a fantastic idea with this series of books, and I've already ordered the upcoming RETURN OF THE JEDI trading card book, due to come out this summer.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the theatrical premier of CITIZEN KANE. I don't think I need to tell you that this is one of the most renowned and famous films of all time. Orson Welles' magnum opus remains a stunning cinematic achievement, and the title of the film itself has become a generic way to judge other productions (such as, "Well, you know, RIDE ALONG 2 isn't exactly CITIZEN KANE.").
CITIZEN KANE has to be considered one of the greatest and most important films ever made. I'm certainly not going to say that KANE is overrated, or deserves a re-appraisal...but I would like to point out that the Hollywood studio RKO gave Orson Welles almost unprecedented power and authority to make KANE as he saw fit. I believe that if several other great directors, actors, and writers who were alive in 1940 had been given the same type of contract RKO gave Welles, they probably would have turned out a game-changing film as well.
I'm not trying to take anything away from Orson Welles by saying that. What he did, as a co-writer/producer/director/actor, was monumental. There isn't really any other type of film like KANE. How do you even define it? Is it a biographical drama? Historical fiction? Pseudo-documentary? CITIZEN KANE is a genre unto itself, which is one of the reasons why it can never seem out of date.
Another reason why this 75 year-old film hasn't aged is that it doesn't seem like a 75 year-old film. The brilliant cinematography of Gregg Toland makes KANE look fresh and exciting, as if it were made a few months ago. Let's not forget the editing by Robert Wise and Mark Robson, which never gets enough credit. (Wise and Robson would go on to become successful directors in their own right.) And there's the sound by Bailey Fesler and James G. Stewart, accentuated by radio veteran Welles' own innovative ideas on what the audience for KANE should hear. The next time you see KANE, try watching next any other film from 1941--the difference between the two will be like night and day.
Let's put aside the technical virtuosity of KANE for a moment and focus on the cast. Almost all the major roles in KANE were played by performers making their film debuts--including Orson Welles himself. They may have been new to movies, but they certainly were not novices when it came to acting ability--most of the cast had been members of Welles' Mercury Theater group. The stories of Orson Welles being an egomaniac are legion--but every time I see KANE I notice how every performer in the movie is given a chance to shine, no matter how small the part might be. Whether it be with a special camera angle or a unique line of dialogue, Welles finds a way to showcase the actors under his direction. There are no "throw-away" roles in KANE. What is forgotten about KANE is that it is very much an actor's film. Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, William Alland--they all give memorable characterizations, and they are the heart and soul of the film.
The script for CITIZEN KANE is credited to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, and it is the basis for several quotable lines of dialogue. My personal favorite is Dorothy Comingore (as Susan Alexander, the second Mrs. Kane) sarcastically spouting "Hooray for the Bulldog!" (If you've seen KANE as many times as I have, you'll get it.) Just as there are no throw-away roles in KANE, there's no throw-away lines either--another example of Welles' stage and radio experience. The CITIZEN KANE script doesn't have the generic narrative requirements of a typical movie of its era (or a typical 21st Century script, for that matter). The jarring shifts of tone, the flashbacks, the multiple points of view--this is a movie that needs to be watched, in the way audiences used to watch a film--with undivided attention. There's something else about the KANE script that makes it special--there's no "good guys" or "bad guys". The characters in KANE are a collection of human beings that defy easy stereotypes. Is Charles Foster Kane really a "bad guy"? The answer may not be so simple, and it may change every time you see KANE.
The production of KANE, and the aftermath of its release, has spawned plenty of legends--so many that trying to unravel the truth concerning the film's history is as much of a daunting task as trying to sum up the "life" of Charles Foster Kane. I won't go into those legends here, but let's say that the drama surrounding the making of KANE is in many ways as interesting as the film itself. The backstage dramas of CITIZEN KANE play a large part in the film's overall reputation.
I must admit that I don't watch KANE as much as I do a lot of other movies. I'm not in any way a sophisticated intellectual, so it's not like I pop it in just to show off to other people. (The version of KANE that I own is the 60th anniversary DVD edition.) But when I do watch it, it's like seeing it for the first time again. I can't help but be impressed by it. It's endlessly fascinating--so much so that, when I'm home and it happens to be on TV, I have to watch the rest of it. There's no way you can watch only part of CITIZEN KANE and stop. That's like trying to eat just one potato chip.
If you haven't seen CITIZEN KANE I highly suggest you do so. Don't see it because it supposedly is "The Greatest Film Of All Time", or because that's what supposedly intelligent film buffs would want you to do. See it to appreciate it for yourself. If you have any love of cinema, you owe it to yourself to see CITIZEN KANE at least once.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Shout Factory, under the company's Scream Factory label, has released a Blu-ray double feature consisting of two American-International horror films: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971), and THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970).
At first glance one would wonder why these two movies have been paired together, but they do have a few things in common. Both features are very loose adaptations of famous terror tales written by two of the greatest horror scribes of all time--Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Both movies feature actors that are not usually associated with fantastic material, and both movies are not very well-known (or well-regarded) among monster movie fans.
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE isn't really a straight version of Poe's story--the screenplay merely uses the tale as a backdrop to a psychological murder mystery. Jason Robards plays the head of a theatrical troupe in late 19th Century Paris that stages plays based on Poe. Robards' wife and lead actress (Christine Kaufmann) is having strange dreams referring to the murder of her mother, who was also a member of the troupe. The man who supposedly killed the woman (Herbert Lom) appears to have come back from the grave to kill again. What develops is a convoluted story involving flashbacks, flashforwards, and many eccentric characters.
MURDERS was directed by Gordon Hessler and co-written by Christopher Wicking, who had already work together on a number of AIP horror features such as SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, THE OBLONG BOX, and CRY OF THE BANSHEE. Like those films MURDERS can be very confusing at times. This Blu-ray presents the 98 minute "director's cut" of the film--AIP released a cut version over Hessler's objections (considering how head-scratching the director's cut is, I can only imagine how it must have been to watch the cut version). MURDERS was filmed entirely in Spain, and because of this it has a look and an attitude totally different from the typical AIP drive-in product being released at the same time--this feels like an independent European art film. The art-house feel also extends to the cast, with such performers as Adolfo Celi, Michael Dunn, and Lilli Palmer. AIP tried to get Vincent Price to play the lead role, but wound up with Jason Robards instead. Robards was a fine actor, but he doesn't really fit into this type of production (and he also appears to be unhappy that he's in it). Herbert Lom actually has the best role as the Phantom of the Opera-like avenger. Lom of course played the Phantom in Hammer's 1962 version of the story, and at times MURDERS comes off as a sequel to that film.
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is the last entry in AIP's famous "Poe series" of films, and it's also probably the most obscure. I never saw this film on TV when I was younger--as a matter of fact I didn't get to see it until it came out as part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" DVD series. (If Vincent Price had starred in it, I'm sure it would have had a bigger reputation.) MURDERS looks far better on this Blu-ray than it did on the earlier DVD. An interview with Gordon Hessler that appeared on the "Midnite Movies" DVD is repeated here, and there is a new audio commentary with Steve Haberman. Haberman attempts to defend Gordon Hessler and Christopher Wicking's work for AIP, but he spends way too much time reading off biographical information and movie credits for nearly everyone involved in the production.
This version of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has several intriguing elements, and I give credit to Gordon Hessler and Christopher Wicking for trying something unusual, but in the end the movie just doesn't come together, in my opinion.
THE DUNWICH HORROR is based on what many believe is the best story the legendary H. P. Lovecraft ever wrote. In my mind Lovecraft is better read than watched--his style is so uniquely imaginative that trying to show it in visual terms is almost always a set-up for failure. This movie was directed by Daniel Haller, who had already helmed a feature based on Lovecraft with DIE, MONSTER, DIE!. Haller was the long-time production designer for Roger Corman, and he certainly gives most of this movie an expressive look, especially the house where Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell) resides--the Whateley home has a very Mario Bava-esque tone to it. Unfortunately this movie is set in contemporary times instead of early 20th Century New England, and that significantly detracts from Lovecraft's vision.
The mysterious Wilbur Whateley travels to Miskatonic University in an attempt to acquire the dreaded Necronomicon. Whateley wants to use the occult tome to help call upon the ancient Old Ones. Whateley also has plans for a pretty co-ed named Nancy (Sandra Dee). Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley) must use all his knowledge of the dark powers to stop Whateley and his "twin brother".
From the very first time we see him on-screen, Dean Stockwell as Wilbur is so massively creepy that one wonders how he's able to get along in ordinary society. The movie suggests that Wilbur either drugs or hypnotizes Nancy to keep her around him--either that or Sandra Dee's acting is very flat. Nancy winds up having subliminal visions of what looks like California hippies cavorting about--one of the many psychedelic tricks director Haller uses to convey the evil of the Old Ones. (Among the others are rapid-fire editing and primary color effects.) Despite Haller's good intentions, everything about the movie is just too modern to accurately portray the sense of Lovecraft's cosmic mythos.
THE DUNWICH HORROR does have enough elements of Lovecraft to make it interesting for those who are fans of the author's work, but it bites off more than it can chew. Wilbur's "twin brother"--a undefinable monstrosity that is one of Lovecraft's greatest creations--is wisely suggested more than shown, but it still falls short of the mark. It doesn't help that the script features young females like the Nancy character--damsels in distress were most certainly not a major factor in Lovecraft's stories. The movie does have one of Les Baxter's most unusual music scores.
THE DUNWICH HORROR was also one of the "Midnite Movies" MGM DVD titles. The sound & picture quality of this Blu-ray version of the movie is excellent. Steve Haberman contributes a new audio commentary for this feature as well. He gives out some interesting background material on the making of the film, but once again he spends an inordinate amount of time reading off biographical sketches and credit lists.
Scream Factory deserves respect for giving both of these films a fine Blu-ray presentation. Both titles are not as famous as most of the other AIP exploitation films released during the same era, but they do have enough elements to attract the attention of hardcore disc-buying film geeks.