Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Valerie Gaunt (1932-2016)








Valerie Gaunt, who passed away a few days ago, may not be known to the average film buff, but she holds a high position among fans of Hammer Films. It could even be said that she provided the template for what would come to be known as "Hammer Glamour".

Gaunt only had two theatrical film credits in her short acting career: THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. But those two credits were enough to make her a classic horror film icon. She not only starred in two of the most famous English Gothic movies ever made, she played an important part in some of the most famous scenes in English Gothic cinema.

In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Valerie plays Justine, the maid to Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein. Justine isn't merely the hired help--she and the Baron are carrying on an affair. When the Baron's attractive cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court) shows up, Justine is rightfully jealous--the Baron and Elizabeth have an agreement to be married, and Justine isn't too happy about it. Justine tries to blackmail the Baron--not a good choice, considering that Frankenstein has created a being out of corpses, and he's not about to let anyone get in his way. The Baron locks Justine in the laboratory with his creature (Christopher Lee), and even though we don't get to see her eventual fate, we can easily guess. The next scene contains the famous line "Pass the marmalade"--a darkly humorous counterpoint to Justine's travails.

As Justine, Gaunt uses a cute accent--I still haven't figured out if it is Spanish or French--and she shows some fiery passion after the Baron informs her of his upcoming marriage to Elizabeth. During her trip to the Baron's laboratory, she gets to wear a nightgown (of course) and she gets to let loose an impressive scream--technically she was the very first Hammer Gothic Horror Scream Queen. (She also is featured in the trailer for THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN--her name is even flashed on the screen during it.)

In HORROR OF DRACULA (I'm an American, so that's the title I'm gonna use), Valerie is credited as "Vampire Woman". She appears early on in the film, eerily sneaking up on Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen). Once again the actress is nightgown-clad, and if anything she looks even more spectacular than she did in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Vampire Woman at first desperately pleads to Harker to save her from Count Dracula, but within an instant she tries to put the bite on him. This causes Dracula himself (Christopher Lee) to angrily intervene--and the following is probably the scariest moment in Hammer Films history. Later Harker destroys the Vampire Woman in time-honored fashion--which means that Valerie Gaunt was the recipient of the very first Hammer vampire staking. (By the way, Wayne Kinsey's stupendous book THE HAMMER DRACULA SCRAPBOOK shows a picture of Gaunt's contract for her role in HORROR OF DRACULA--her salary was 100 pounds!)

The impression that Gaunt made in her two movie roles far outweighs the total amount of screen time she actually had. As both Justine and the "Vampire Woman", she showed quite a bit of range in a very short amount of time. Justine goes from sexy maid to angry jilted lover quite quickly, and the Vampire Woman first seems a frightened victim before she turns on Harker with a ferocity that is only topped by her master, the King of Vampires. It makes one wonder what Gaunt could have done with a full-fledged leading role.

After completing her role in HORROR OF DRACULA, Gaunt married Gerald Reddington in 1958 and retired from acting. As far as I know, she never gave interviews about Hammer in her later years, and I don't believe she ever attended any autograph shows. It appears that she didn't seem to regret not continuing her acting career. While looking up photos of Gaunt on the internet in preparation for this blog post, I noticed something about many of her posed "cheesecake" photos. Check out a few of them and see what you think:













I don't know about you...but when I look at these photos, it's very easy to discern that Valerie Gaunt has very little enthusiasm for what she has to do. I'm sure almost every actress who had to pose for pictures like these felt silly...but Gaunt can't even offer up one fake smile. Maybe she was encouraged to act "pouty", but I personally think it was more than that. The message she seems to be sending in these shots is one that says, "I really could be doing far more important things right now." Maybe Valerie Gaunt didn't want to spend the rest of her screen career wearing nightgowns and posing next to haystacks.

The fact that Valerie Gaunt stayed out of the limelight made her an enticing mystery among Hammer fans. They all wanted to know what she felt about Cushing, Lee, Terence Fisher, Bray Studios, etc. You could say that Valerie Gaunt left a lot of monster movie fans wanting....but what she did contribute to the horror genre was so overwhelming, it's hard to be disappointed that she didn't have a larger acting career.

At her passing Valerie Gaunt was still married to Gerald Reddington, and the couple had four children. One can easily assume that she lived a happy, contented life--and in the end that is far more important than giving interviews or autographs to crazy fanboys like me.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

HELL OR HIGH WATER










A couple months ago, one of my Twitter followers (yes, I actually have some) asked me if I had seen a film called HELL OR HIGH WATER. I had not even heard of it, but my internet friend stated that it was the best movie he had seen in a long time. A few weeks ago, Glenn Erickson reviewed the film in his excellent DVD Savant web column. Erickson was also impressed by it--he even called it a "Trump Western". Erickson felt that the film accurately reflected the angst felt by lower middle-class white folks, supposedly the type of people who voted for Donald Trump.

I believe that Erickson might be reading too much into the film--HELL OR HIGH WATER is the type of story that would work just as well in the 1970s or 1980s as now. It isn't really a modern Western, or a crime story, as it is a serious American modern adult drama--the type of picture that it is almost totally ignored today.

The main character in HELL OR HIGH WATER is Toby Howard (Chris Pine). To say that Toby is down on his luck is an understatement--his mother has just died, he is separated from his wife and children, he owes money on his farm, he's behind on his child support payments--and he's broke. Toby decides to start robbing banks--specifically branches of the Texas Midland bank, the same institution that he owes money to. Toby is assisted in this endeavor by his ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster)--an unstable bad-ass acting fellow. The brothers' crimes attract the attention of a soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges), who is convinced that there is some sort of purpose to these robberies. Toby hopes to get enough money to pay off his debts before he gets caught, or before his brother screws things up.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is set in a economically depressed section of West Texas, a location the movie shows as filled with abandoned buildings and foreclosed homes. The small towns that the Howard brothers travel through are arid and desolate, contributing to the movie's mood of foreboding. Director David Mackenzie uses a very welcome traditional movie making style, with lots of wide angels and long takes. There is some gunplay, but it is shot in a realistic manner instead of the video-game tactics one sees in so many features of today. Taylor Sheridan's impressive script is sparse and to the point. What's even better about it is that the people in this film look and act like regular folks, instead of Hollywood's usual way of portraying red-staters as either country bumpkins or excessively quirky weirdos.

The movie doesn't try to show the Howard brothers as heroes, or ask the audience to feel sorry for them. Chris Pine really impressed me as Toby--the cocky arrogance the actor shows as the modern Captain Kirk is nowhere to be found here. Pine's Toby is a man who has been beaten down by his circumstances, and a man who takes no pleasure or satisfaction in doing wrong to solve his problems. Ben Foster gets the showier role of Tanner, the type of guy who goes out of his way to show everyone how tough he is. (I know plenty of guys like that in Northern Indiana.) Every time Foster is on the screen, you're waiting for the other shoe to drop, because the actor does a fine job in putting across how out of control his character is.

Jeff Bridges could very well get another Oscar nomination for his role as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. The Ranger is old in age and in attitude--his politically incorrect conversations with his Native American-Mexican partner (Gil Birmingham) are among the film's highlights. Bridges makes you totally believe that Marcus is a real person, and he dominates every scene he is in.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is the type of film that Hollywood used to make all the time--a lower budget realistic drama that doesn't look cheap and is still able to have big-name stars. It also has an ending which one rarely sees anymore--an ending showcasing acting and dialogue instead of explosions. If you are tired of superheroes and billion-dollar franchises, HELL OR HIGH WATER is the perfect medicine. It certainly deserves to get more attention.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

HORROR (AKA THE BLANCHEVILLE MONSTER)









My Euro Gothic tour continues with a 1963 Italian-Spanish production called HORROR. The movie was released in the U.S. as THE BLANCHEVILLE MONSTER. The print I viewed on YouTube had the HORROR title, but with an English dub track.

As you can see on the poster above, HORROR tries to pass itself off as a Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, even though officially it isn't. The movie owes more to the Roger Corman/AIP film adaptations of Poe than anything the author actually wrote. HORROR contains elements similar to such Corman entries as HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and THE PREMATURE BURIAL. The lead actor, Gerard Tichy, bears a certain resemblance to Vincent Price--and he plays a brooding character named Roderick. To top it all off, HORROR has a fog-shrouded dream sequence much like the ones Corman would put into almost all of his Poe productions. The one major thing HORROR does not have in common with the AIP Poes is that series' lush color--but the atmospheric black & white photography is more than sufficient.

The story concerns the young & pretty Emily de Blancheville, who, in the late 19th Century, has returned to her French home after a number of years abroad. Accompanying Emily is her best friend Alice, and Alice's brother John. The trio are dismayed to find that Emily's brother Roderick acts strangely, and that he has replaced all the servants with a group of suspiciously acting newcomers. Soon Emily begins to feel that the spirit of her late father is calling her to an early grave, and Alice and John try to get to the bottom of things.

Director Alberto De Martino piles on the Gothic trappings in spades. The new housekeeper, played by European cult actress Helga Line, comes off as a younger and more attractive version of Judith Anderson's character in Hitchcock's REBECCA. (If you have seen HORROR EXPRESS, Helga Line almost steals that movie as the sultry spy.) The supposed "spirit" of Emily and Roderick's father goes about in a black cloak, and both Emily and Alice spend a considerable amount of time--you guessed it--wandering dark corridors while wearing nightgowns and holding up candles. HORROR has a slow, stately pace to it, and at about 90 minutes, some might say that much of the spooky aspects of the tale might have been curtailed a bit. At least De Martino does take his time enough to stage some striking shots, such as having Emily (in a white nightgown, of course) slowly making her way through the de Blancheville's ruined abbey in a long shot.

HORROR is very much a traditional Gothic thriller, without the wild excesses that one usually finds in a Euro Gothic. Everything in it is familiar, and there's nothing in the movie that is particularly groundbreaking--but it does what it is designed to do. It is the type of movie that is best watched late in night when you are unable to sleep. It would be interesting to see a remastered version of HORROR on Blu-ray, especially one that didn't have the dubbed track--if I could view it that way I'm sure my appreciation of it would grow. HORROR does have some striking sequences, and those who are drawn to this genre will enjoy it.


Friday, November 25, 2016

THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE









My "Euro Gothic" viewing binge continues with the 1960 Italian film L'ULTIMA PREDA DEL VAMPIRO, which was released in the U.S. as THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE. The version I watched on the internet had the American title and was dubbed in English.

THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE was produced soon after THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA (see my last post), and the two films share a lot in common. Both pictures have a group of gorgeous dancers involved with the undead, and Italian actor Walter Brandi stars in each. Brandi was the very underwhelming head vampire in THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA--here in PLAYGIRLS he plays another sadly lacking vampiric menace, and his modern-day descendant. Both films are also in black & white, and both are set in contemporary times.

The "Playgirls" of the story are five alluring members of a down-and-out dance troupe, who seek shelter at a mysterious castle along with their comic-relief manager and the group's accompanist. (The accompanist, by the way, is a young, handsome man who is constantly being hit on by the ladies, so one would assume that he winds up being the story's hero--but at the climax he doesn't contribute much help at all.) The castle is the ancestral home of the Kernassy family, and the current Count (the aforementioned Walter Brandi) isn't too happy about letting the group stay. The Count warns his guests not to leave their rooms at night--and of course no one listens to him, because this is an Italian Gothic horror film, and you've just got to have nightgown-wearing cuties wandering around dark corridors.

It isn't too long before one of the girls is found dead, and another girl starts to feel strangely attracted to the dour Count. The Count is supposed to be one of those soulful romantic types, but due to Brandi's non-magnetic personality and a mediocre English dubbing job, one wonders what the beautiful dancer sees in him. (The plaid suit jackets the Count constantly sports doesn't help his cause.)

The late member of the troupe rises out of her grave to become a vampire--but the twist in this film is that she wanders around naked. Except for one very brief topless shot, she's always in shadow--but the very idea of her being undead in her birthday suit is a rather racy one for an early 1960s black & white horror film, even if it is from Europe. Remember that this was a decade before THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. The nudie vampire gets the stake, in a scene that kind of anticipates a similar one in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

For most of the film the Count is set up as being the main menace--but it's really his centuries-old ancestor who is the cause of all the trouble. Apparently the modern-day Count is trying to "cure" his relative's affliction (shades of HOUSE OF DRACULA). Writer-director Piero Regnoli brings some decent atmosphere to the tale, but the Gothic trappings are watered down by the girls. Collectively they're pure eye candy, but individually none of their characters are very interesting. One does get to see them in lingerie numerous times, and we're treated to one dance number, in which one of the ladies starts performing a striptease--she's stopped from concluding it, however, by the doleful-looking maid of Kernassy Castle.

Like THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA, THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE is an okay early Italian Gothic, but it certainly can't be put on the same level as something like Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY. The ladies are attractive, if a bit annoying, and the climax, set in the Kernassy crypt, brings to mind the Universal classics of the 30s and 40s (except those movies didn't feature a nude bloodsucker). If you are a fan of classic horror it is worth seeking out.


Monday, November 21, 2016

THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA









I'm currently reading EURO GOTHIC, the new book by fantastic film expert Jonathan Rigby. In ENGLISH GOTHIC and AMERICAN GOTHIC, Rigby covered classic horror films made in Britain and the United States. EURO GOTHIC looks at 20th Century terror movies made in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.

EURO GOTHIC deals with a number of movies that I have never seen before--and some I've never even heard of before. The book has inspired me to go on the internet and seek out some of these obscure titles. One picture that piqued my interest was an Italian film made in 1959 called L'AMANTE DEL VAMPIRO--it is was released in America as THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. I found the movie on YouTube, and it was the uncut Italian version, with the Italian title and English subtitles. The print that I watched looked fantastic, by the way.

The release of Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA was a major inspiration for THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA--in Rigby's book director Renato Polselli is quoted saying he was impressed by it. THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA was one of the first true Italian Gothic films, and though it certainly isn't up to the later examples of that genre from such filmmakers as Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti, it's an efficient tale with a few unusual twists on the vampire legend.

Despite its being a Gothic horror, the movie is set in contemporary times. A troupe of ballerinas are practicing in a large house, which is located near a village beset by a number of mysterious deaths. (Sound familiar?) One day, two of the ballerinas, Luisa and Francesca, along with Francesca's boyfriend Luca, seek shelter from a storm in an abandoned castle. They find the castle tenanted by a beautiful but strange Countess and her "servant" Herman. The dour duo of course are vampires, and they set their sights on the lovely ballerinas.

The best thing about THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is the atmospheric black & white photography by Maria Ciampaglia. Director Polselli uses natural outdoor locations instead of Hammer's typical lush production design--two different real-life castles were used during filming. The movie starts out with an effective sequence of a young farm girl being stalked and attacked. Later the vampirized girl "watches" her own burial--her coffin has a handy window built into it--and the camera takes her point of view, in a reference to the classic VAMPYR.

The girl revives at night and leaves her grave...only to be staked by Herman himself. The idea of a head vampire staking one of his own victims is one of the twists in this tale. Another is the Countess and Herman (who actually is the real power of the two) feeding off one another to keep themselves youthful. When Herman is at his most vampiric, he has a makeup job that looks like a very bad Halloween mask. This is by far the movie's biggest letdown--it's hard to take Herman seriously as a viable threat when he looks so goofy.

The climax of the film owes a great deal to the aforementioned HORROR OF DRACULA, with one of the young male heroes making a cross out of candlesticks, and vampires being forced out into the sun to be destroyed. Unfortunately THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA doesn't have the same acting talent of that classic Hammer film. The Italian performers are adequate, nothing more. The role of the Countess really needed someone like a Barbara Steele, and the actor who plays Herman is more David Manners than Bela Lugosi. It does need mentioning that the ballerinas are quite a collection of beauties, Luisa and Francesca especially. The movie anticipates many, many other vampire films that use the contrivance of having a bunch of gorgeous young females around while the undead are roaming about, such as THE BRIDES OF DRACULA and Hammer's Karnstein trilogy. Since this is a very early entry in the Italian Gothic sweepstakes, there's no nudity (or gore either)....but the ballerinas get two different dance sequences to strut their stuff. The numbers are more like burlesque routines than any ballet, but there's nothing wrong with that from my point of view.

I wouldn't say that THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA is a underrated classic. It's a decent Gothic vampire film--it's enjoyable if you are interested in this type of fare, and the girls are certainly easy to look at. I've seen plenty of vampire movies that were worse. It is definitely worth checking out if you get a chance to see it.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK--THE TOURING YEARS




This week the heavy metal rock group Metallica released their first studio album in eight years. I point this out because the Beatles recorded all of their "official" albums in about an eight year span. The prolific amount of work the Beatles did in the short time they were actually together as a group is astounding, and it is the main subject of the documentary THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK--THE TOURING YEARS, directed by Ron Howard.

If you are a major Beatles fan, almost all of EIGHT DAYS A WEEK will be very familiar. What one does get out of this film is the hectic pace the Beatles were under during the first years of Beatlemania--they recorded several albums, went on many tours throughout the world, made numerous personal appearances, and managed to film two movies as well. Considering that all four Beatles were in their early 20s--and the fact that they couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed--it's hard to believe that at least one of them didn't crack under the pressure. (The movie does show that the four Beatles bond as a group helped each of them individually deal with the various strains put on them.)

The highlight of EIGHT DAYS A WEEK is watching all the rare concert footage of the Beatles performing--there's even some film of their very last concert in 1966 at San Francisco. The most surprising fact I learned from this documentary was how primitive the Beatles tours were, even though they were the biggest music group in the world at that time. While music groups today travel with tons of equipment and a full support staff, the Beatles were literally on their own, save for a handful of roadies. They played some major stadiums, but they also held a number of gigs at what were basically the equivalent of county fairs. Surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr go out of their way to say that manager Brian Epstein took care of them, but I can't help but wonder about that, since the group seemed to be put in a number of precarious situations while on their tours.

Ron Howard keeps the pace of the film at a steady clip, and if things do get slack, a Beatles song always starts playing eventually on the soundtrack--you can't help but feel good when you hear a Beatles song. There's a number of famous faces expressing their love for the Beatles, such as Eddie Izzard, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sigourney Weaver. I can understand having famous talking heads to draw the viewer's attention--many documentaries do this now, and obviously someone like Ron Howard had easy access to them--but I really wish that Howard had included regular folks who had seen the Beatles play live.

As mentioned, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr look back on their experiences in EIGHT DAYS A WEEK, while John Lennon and George Harrison are represented by vintage interviews. It's always nice to hear from Paul and Ringo, but I kind of feel that the movie is missing something without the true input of John and George.

There's nothing very revelatory about EIGHT DAYS A WEEK, except maybe the idea that the reason the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album was so groundbreaking is that the Beatles were freed from the constraints of touring. Beatle fans will enjoy it, and it is worth seeing at least once. It's a nice documentary, but I wouldn't call it a great one.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

THE LOST CONTINENT




Issue #37 of Richard Klemensen's wonderful LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS is now available, and it's filled with all sorts of goodies. This issue focuses on the wild & woolly Hammer production THE LOST CONTINENT (filmed in 1967), and the cover, featuring artwork by the ultra-talented Mark Maddox, perfectly sums up the film's tone.








The last issue of LSOH, which examined the 1979 film version of DRACULA, inspired me to write a blog post on that movie, which was well received. So I've got no choice but to put down my thoughts on THE LOST CONTINENT.

I first saw THE LOST CONTINENT on the American cable network TBS back in the early 1990s. (TBS and its sister station TNT showed Hammer movies quite regularly in the late 80s and early 90s.) I now own the Anchor Bay DVD of the film. For many years THE LOST CONTINENT was considered one of the weaker Hammer outings. It is not a straight "horror" film--it is really a bizarre adventure tale, with horror and science-fiction elements mixed in. It doesn't feature Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, or any of the more famous Hammer Hotties. It is a film that is almost impossible to categorize, and for that reason some have overlooked it. When I first saw it I felt it was just too strange for me to fully embrace--but upon later viewings I have come to recognize it as a rather intriguing attempt by Producer-Director-Writer Michael Carreras to do something different within the Hammer formula....and I would say he succeeded.

THE LOST CONTINENT is based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley called UNCHARTED SEAS. (At an early point in the film, the character played by Nigel Stock is seen reading a paperback version of this novel.) Dennis Wheatley was a popular British author of the mid-20th Century, but I'd venture to say that if anyone knows of him now, it is because of the Hammer film adaptations of his work, specifically the 1968 Terence Fisher-directed THE DEVIL RIDES OUT. I haven't read the novel, but Michael Carreras was taken by it, and felt it would be perfect for a film.

Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer's chief James Carreras, and he felt that the company should branch out into other genres than just classic horror. The films that Michael Carreras personally directed for Hammer vary wildly in the final outcome, but one thing you have to say for them is that they all try to be different in some way. In his main feature article in LSOH on THE LOST CONTINENT, Bruce Hallenbeck calls the movie Hammer's wildest--and he's probably not far off the mark with that statement.

THE LOST CONTINENT has everything including the sink--at one point the captain of the ship, efficiently played by Eric Porter, sets off some explosives in a sink. The movie features a ship's mutiny, a hurricane, a shark attack, treacherous seaweed, giant monsters, a cargo hold filled with dangerous explosives, descendants of 16th Century Spanish explorers, beautiful women (who all have various issues)...it's a smorgasbord of numerous B movie elements, all served up with a cast that plays it absolutely straight the entire way.

The story of THE LOST CONTINENT centers on a run-down freighter called Corita, which is sailing in the South Atlantic Ocean. The ship is carrying a few passengers, and all of them have secrets they are hiding or pasts they are running away from--it is literally a "ship of lost souls". If that isn't enough, the captain (Eric Porter) has decided to carry aboard a large amount of explosive phosphates. The ship is given a hurricane warning, but neither the captain or the passengers wish to turn back. The crew, however, has other ideas--especially when they find out about the explosives. They mutiny and leave the ship on a lifeboat, and the captain and the passengers also have to leave the same way when the Corita runs into the storm.

As the lifeboat approaches the Sargasso Sea, the survivors find that the water is becoming more and more filled with a thick seaweed that seems to be forcing the boat in a certain direction. The motley group discovers a "graveyard" of wrecked ships, some of them several years old, that have been trapped by the weed. The Corita is there as well, and the group gets back on the freighter, and tries to figure out how to escape. But their plans are interrupted by the discovery that there are other beings in this strange sea of weed....a young woman arrives out of this mist, walking on the weed, with the help of pontoon shoes and balloons strapped to her shoulders.

The sight of actress Dana Gillespie appearing out of nowhere in such a getup isn't just one of the weirdest scenes ever in a Hammer movie--it is one of the weirdest scenes in any movie, period. What makes the scene even more outlandish is the fact that Dana Gillespie is wearing balloons, because....well, let's just say that in 1967, Dana Gillespie was a very healthy young woman (see the cover of LSOH above).





Dana Gillespie and her....um, balloons



Gillespie's character is on the run from men dressed like Spanish conquistadors, who attack the ship. It turns out that this unsavory realm is ruled over by these Spanish descendants, who impose a harsh judgment on those who defy them. The survivors of the Corita use the explosives in the ship's hold to fight the religiously fanatic Spaniards, and destroy their Galleon.

My description of the plot just doesn't do it justice--THE LOST CONTINENT is something you have to see for yourself. I didn't even cover the giant crab, or the giant scorpion, which were both built by Disney FX artist Robert Mattey, or the culture of the hardcore Spanish Catholics that give the main characters so much trouble (you could do an entire film based on that aspect of the plot alone--I think it's the most fascinating thing about THE LOST CONTINENT).

In his article on the film Bruce Hallenbeck states that THE LOST CONTINENT was Hammer's most expensive production up to that time. It may not look like that today, but for me the sea of weed, with its many trapped ships, is rendered most effectively. The Spanish Galleon set is quite impressive, and its eventual destruction during the film's climax is one of the most spectacular scenes ever in a Hammer film.

THE LOST CONTINENT may not have what one considers a "typical" Hammer cast, but the actors that do appear work very well. I've already mentioned Eric Porter, and he is joined by a couple of striking ladies in Hildegard Knef and Suzanna Leigh. (I've met Suzanna Leigh at a Monster Bash, by the way.) The great character actor Michael Ripper even shows up in a small role as one of the mutinous crew. The appeal of Dana Gillespie is, uh, obvious, and mention must be made of stuntman Eddie Powell as "The Inquisitor", the man who controls the leader of the Spanish descendants, the young "El Supremo". There's something very disturbing about how the Inquisitor goes into deep prayer while he and the Galleon he is on go up in flames. (According to Bruce Hallenbeck, Christopher Lee was at first going to play the role of the Inquisitor in a unbilled cameo. Lee apparently turned it down, but it wouldn't have made much sense for a publicity-obsessed company like Hammer to use Lee in such a way.)

A couple other things I have to mention about this film. The movie actually has a title song, which was very unusual for a Hammer production. The song hasn't aged as well as the film--the tune is very much a 1960s style lounge piece. And I have to point out the creature that is kept inside of the bilge of the Spanish Galleon, a creature used to dispatch those who trespass against El Supremo. The creature appears to be a killer salad, and looks very much like the Sarlacc featured in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Did George Lucas see THE LOST CONTINENT while he was a film student as USC?

To sum it all up, THE LOST CONTINENT is a wild, wacky out-and-out strange adventure tale--but it is an entertaining one. Many other adventure films that have far bigger budgets--and far bigger reputations--aren't nearly as fun as THE LOST CONTINENT. Some Hammer fans have dismissed this movie because it is not a true horror film. Hammer movies have never really scared me as much as they have set off my imagination. I would define the best Hammer films as bizarre adventures instead of horror movies. THE LOST CONTINENT is probably the most bizarre Hammer adventure of them all.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND On Blu-ray








Olive Films has just released the 1955 Air Force epic STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND on Blu-ray. The movie is one of the many collaborations between actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann.

Jimmy Stewart was a life-long aviation buff, and he had a distinguished record serving as a pilot in World War II. After the war Stewart continued to serve in the U. S. Air Force Reserve. Stewart got to know General Curtis LeMay, the head of Strategic Air Command (SAC), and felt that the department would be a worthy subject for a film.

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND almost plays as a sequel to a couple of earlier Jimmy Stewart films: THE STRATTON STORY and THE GLENN MILLER STORY. In both those movies June Allyson plays Jimmy's supportive wife, and she does the same thing again in STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. THE STRATTON STORY had Stewart playing real-life baseball pitcher Monty Stratton, and here he plays Robert "Dutch" Holland, a star baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, who is recalled by the Air Force.

At first Holland is frustrated by his situation--he and his wife Sally have only been married a few months, and it may be a couple years before he's able to play baseball again. As the story goes on, Dutch starts to grow into his role as a pilot for SAC--so much so that he decides to stay on full-time, much to the consternation of Sally.

There really isn't much of a plot to STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND--the most dramatic sequence in the movie details Dutch and his crew having to crash land in Greenland. The film is basically a tribute to the United States Air Force, which gave the production full cooperation. It is a Cold War era presentation for why America must be prepared at all times, with the audience following along Stewart through his experiences. If any other actor had played Dutch Holland, the movie would be a bit stiff--but Jimmy Stewart's likable persona, as always, shines through. Despite the fact that Dutch is a famous baseball player, and the pilot of one of the most advanced machines of the time, he still comes across as an ordinary fellow, and the type of guy we'd like to watch and spend time with.

The real stars of STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND are the majestic planes featured in the film, especially the B-36 and B-47 jet bombers. About midway through the film, after his experience in Greenland, Dutch is told about the birth of his daughter. A few minutes later, Dutch is shown the B-47 for the very first time--and he reacts with more emotion than he did when he found out about his new child! That kind of tells you where this movie's sympathies lie. The flight sequences are spectacular, and they will be very appreciated by film buffs. (Baseball fans should also take note that this film features footage shot at Al Lang Field, the spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals at that time.)

STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND was filmed in the famed Vista Vision process, and Olive's Blu-ray has gorgeous color and precise clarity. The Blu-ray is in anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, and it looks as if it was made this year instead of 60 years ago. (William Daniels was responsible for the cinematography.) As usual with Olive's releases, there are no extras...and that's too bad, because a title like this begs for a audio commentary by someone who is an expert on James Stewart's life and acting career.

James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, so obviously I was going to buy this. It isn't on the level of the Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns, but it is of great interest to aviation fans. STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND is very much a Cold War period piece. Can you imagine any major film actor of today wanting to make a film extolling the virtues of an American military defense program?


Friday, November 11, 2016

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon: AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS







This is my contribution to the Great Imaginary Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Scenes. Coming up with your very own Classic Movie is a fantastic idea...the last time this blogathon was held, I conceived a Hammer Films-Toho Studios co-production called GODZILLA VS. ENGLAND. It remains one of my most popular blog posts.

So what was the result of my bizarre imaginings this time? How about a Universal horror film....starring Karloff & Lugosi, of course. But wait! You not only get Boris & Bela, you get Basil Rathbone as well...and Lionel Atwill! And George Zucco!!

If that's not enough to peak your interest...the film is based on a novel by H. P. Lovecraft!! Wouldn't this have been a incredible thing to see? Well, unfortunately, what I am about to relate to you was never produced on screen. But who knows....maybe in some alternate universe somewhere, it does exist....

THE PRODUCTION
The year is 1940. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN has been an unexpected hit for Universal, and the studio is getting ready to start a whole new program of thriller pictures. Filmmaker Rowland V. Lee has just finished TOWER OF LONDON, starring Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Universal wants Lee to do another picture with Basil & Boris, and they'd like Bela Lugosi to be part of the cast as well. In a meeting with the studio brass, Lee is informed that Lionel Atwill and George Zucco should also be involved with the project.

Lee racks his brain trying to come up with a story that has major roles for all five actors. Thumbing through a stack of pulps one day while at the studio, Lee comes across a serialized novel featured in a number of issues of AMAZING STORIES. The novel is called AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, and something about the story--a tale of a doomed Antarctic expedition--intrigues him. Lee believes that the desolate frozen landscapes the story takes place in can inexpensively be shown through weird lighting and shadows--much like how he directed many scenes in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. The writer of the novel is an obscure deceased Rhode Islander named H. P. Lovecraft--Lee has never heard of him, but he appreciates the fact that the man will not be around to complain how the story is being adapted. Universal buys the rights to the story (rather cheaply, by the way), and assigns Curt Siodmak to write the screenplay.

THE STORY
The tale begins in the present day, at Miskatonic University, located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Dr. William Dyer (Basil Rathbone), head of Miskatonic's Geology Department, is in a meeting with the University's President (Samuel S. Hinds). The President informs Dyer that for over two weeks now, no contact has been made with the University's Antarctic expedition. The last time there was word from the group, there was strange stories issued about various relics and artifacts being unearthed. Dyer is told to head a new expedition to the Antarctic to find out what has happened to the first group.

Dyer goes back to his home and excitedly informs his wife, Susan (Anne Nagel) about his upcoming trip. Susan is understandably nervous--"You're going to the end of the world!!!"--but Dyer is as giddy as a schoolboy. "My dear, think of it! This will be a grand adventure in science!!" Among Dyer's main companions on the trip will be Professor Peter Danforth (Boris Karloff), an anthropologist and expert in occult sciences. The brooding Danforth is considered a bit odd, but Dyer respects his arcane knowledge. Dr. Franklin Pabodie (Bela Lugosi) is also going along--he is the man who invented the drill the first Miskatonic expedition used to burrow into the earth. To his dismay, Dyer finds that Pabodie is as strange as Danforth--and that the two men are bitter rivals.

The two other experts for the trip are Professors Benton Lake (Lionel Atwill) and Gavin Atwood (George Zucco). Lake and Atwood are considered major authorities on ancient cultures, but both men have also been accused of being tomb robbers. Also joining the team is former Marine and all-around mechanic Joe Forrester (Dick Foran), who will fly the customized airplane located at the Antarctic base.

The group is shipped to Antarctica, and travels to the camp of the first expedition. The party finds corpses everywhere--all the men of the first expedition have been mysteriously wiped out--but by who? Or what? Dyer and Danforth find large, mysterious things preserved at the camp--a type of being unknown to modern man. Dyer is shocked to find that Danforth and Pabodie seem to react to the things with a type of reverence.

Dyer finds a log from the first expedition going into detail about the discovery of the things, and the "lost city" located several miles away. The log also has a number of symbols which cause Danforth and Pabodie to almost fight each other in an effort to decipher them. Both men exclaim to Dyer that the symbols can be found in the dreaded tome know as the "Necronomicon"--and that the beings are actually remains of the great and powerful Old Ones, ancient Gods that once ruled the Earth!!

Danforth and Pabodie demand that Joe fly the group to the location of the lost city mentioned in the first expedition's log. Dyer reluctantly agrees. Lake and Atwood consider Danforth and Pabodie superstitious fools....but they also believe that the lost city may contain precious treasures. ("We must agree to this, Atwood! Who knows what valuables we may find!!")

The five men take off in the specially-equipped plane and find a mountain range longer and taller than any ever recorded in human history. Even more amazing is the fact that there are aged structures resting on the high peaks!! Joe lands the plane in a clearing and the men venture into one of these bizarre buildings. The group finds that inside are a series of caves stretching off into all directions. The caves are festooned with all sorts of weird writings and drawings--and these images drive Danforth and Pabodie into almost insane behavior.

Danforth demands that the group pay homage to the Old Ones--and that he will kill them all if they do not agree! Pabodie angrily replies that only he knows how to tap the ultimate power of the Necronomicon, and he battles Danforth in one of the caves. The cave collapses, and the duo are separated from the rest of the group. The other men continue on, going deeper and deeper. Lake and Atwood find brightly colored stones, and their shared greed causes them to fight each other over them, much like Danforth and Pabodie did. The two stop their struggle when they hear Danforth's voice bellowing out a strange rhythmic chant--followed by a rustling sound, as if many creatures are scurrying about. The rustling sounds like a phrase--the phrase being "TEKELI-LI".

Lake and Atwood, now scared to death, grab as many stones as they can carry and try to find their way back to the surface. Dyer and Joe try to stop them, but Lake pulls out a revolver, firing in the air. The rustling sound grows louder, and this cave starts to collapse as well. Dyer and Joe escape into a passageway, while Lake and Atwood come upon a deep chasm, blocking their escape to the surface. Lake drops his stones, preparing to leap the chasm--but Atwood pushes him into it! The madly grinning Atwood tries to go on another way, while carrying both sets of stones. Atwood is starting to collapse when he turns a corner and runs straight into the dead body of Pabodie! Atwood is so startled by this that he falls screaming into a nearby cavern.





Poster designed and created by Joshua Kennedy


Dyer and Joe continue on, and find themselves in a huge chamber filled with fantastic machinery--machinery that was not designed for use by human beings. Danforth is there, crazed beyond belief. Danforth, staring daggers at the two men, intones that by killing Pabodie and using his blood as a sacrifice, he has awakened the Old Ones. Dyer pleads to Danforth to help them escape, but the madman laughs. "We are but specks compared to the Old Ones...what happens to us is of no consequence!!"

Joe attacks Danforth and forces him into one of the strange machines. The machine suddenly hums to life, while the weird rustling becomes louder and louder. The injured Danforth starts to chant again--but before he can finish, the chamber begins to collapse. Joe and Dyer rush out and start down another corridor, while the rustling continues to follow them. The two men finally do make it to the surface--but not before Dyer takes one look behind him. As the rustling reaches it loudest height, Dyer's face--shown in extreme close-up--is paralyzed with fear. Joe pulls away Dyer just in time before a rock slide covers up the entrance to the surface.

A screen title informs us it is one month later. Joe, Susan, and the Miskatonic President are sitting inside a doctor's office. The doctor (Edward Van Sloan) tells the group that William Dyer "...may recover someday--but the road ahead is a long one." Susan asks the doctor, "Do you have any idea what may have forced him into this condition?" "We still have much to learn," replies the doctor, "but it may have been something he had seen...something inside of those mountains of madness..."

The camera pans outside the room, down a hallway, and through a door marked, WARNING: NO UNAUTHORIZED VISITORS BEYOND THIS POINT. The camera moves to another door, with a small window. The camera goes up to the window, which is barred, and we see inside the empty room the figure of William Dyer, dressed in hospital patient garb, sitting on a cot.

We then see an extreme close-up of Dyer's sweaty face, still paralyzed in fear. Dyer is whispering...

"TEKELI-LI....TEKELI-LI...."

THE FILM'S RECEPTION
Released near the end of 1940, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was not received with any great fanfare. A VARIETY review stated: "Universal's new chiller diller really is a chiller, set in snowy climbs...the lead actors give out generous helpings of ham, but the story is so outlandish it's difficult to care what happens." As H. P. Lovecraft's stature climbed, the movie's reputation climbed as well. It became a baby-boomer favorite due to its many TV airings in the 1950s and the 1960s and its being showcased in several monster movie magazines of the period. The once-in-a-lifetime cast also made popular.

In later years movie historians such as Greg Mank and Tom Weaver reassessed it with a more critical eye. Despite the joy of seeing Boris & Bela face off, along with Atwill & Zucco facing off as well, many film geeks have pointed out that Dick Foran as the affable ordinary guy gets as much screen time as the masters of mayhem. One recent publication has stated, "...while the movie deserves credit as the first true cinema adaptation of Lovecraft's work, Curt Siodmak's screenplay just doesn't do justice to the author's cosmic vision. Director Lee's constant use of shadows and lighting to hide the film's meager budget shows that Universal simply wasn't able to properly present the vast city of the Old Ones."

Universal released AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS on VHS in the early 1980s, and on DVD in the early 2000s as part of the "Bela Lugosi Collection" (despite the fact that Karloff's role was bigger than Bela's). There have been rumors for years that Bela's death at the hands of Karloff, which was not shown on screen, was filmed, due to a famous posed publicity shot showing Boris as Danforth getting ready to stab a frightened Lugosi. To this day it has not been ascertained whether the scene exists or not.


UNIVERSAL presents

BASIL RATHBONE  BORIS KARLOFF  BELA LUGOSI in

AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS

with LIONEL ATWILL  GEORGE ZUCCO  Dick Foran  Anne Nagel

Screenplay by Curt Siodmak (based on a serial appearing in "Amazing Stories")

Produced & Directed by ROWLAND V. LEE

Released November, 1940--87 minutes











Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The 50th Anniversary Of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY








Fifty years ago, in 1966, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY was produced in Spain and Italy. It is my second favorite film of all time, so accordingly a blog post commemorating this anniversary is in order. Instead of going into the details about the production history of the film, or the storyline, I'm going to discuss why GBU has had such an affect on me personally.

I vividly remember when I first saw GBU. It was sometime in the mid-1980s, on Channel 32 WFLD Chicago. This was at the very beginnings of my film geekdom. I was already a huge Clint Eastwood fan--most American males growing up in the late 70s-early 80s were--but at that time I still had not seen any of the Spaghetti Westerns the actor had made with director Sergio Leone.

I had heard about GBU, of course, and I was highly anticipating seeing it--for about a week in advance Ch. 32 had been running commercials touting its presentation. To say that it lived up to my expectations is a severe understatement.

First of all, I had never seen anything like GBU. (I do have to admit that at that point in time I had not seen a number of famous films.) Everything about the film--the pacing, the shots, the editing of it, the uniqueness of it all--intrigued me. Certainly at that time I wasn't able to articulate what I was feeling, but I knew I was watching a movie that would change how I felt about movies in general.

How powerful did that first viewing of GBU affect me? Consider that I was watching it on a portable TV, in pan-and-scan, with frequent commercial interruptions--and it was more than likely edited. It still bowled me over. I've seen it several times since (I watch it at least a couple times a year), and my appreciation of it just keeps growing. On the surface it is a crude, violent Spaghetti Western. But there is a vastness to it--it is far more ambitious than Leone's earlier A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and A FEW DOLLARS MORE. GBU is a long, meandering film, in which the main characters journey all over the American Southwest in search of gold during the Civil War. The characters are in a hurry to get the gold, but the story takes its time in getting them there. The trials and tribulations that the characters go through in order to get to their final destination is reminiscent of mythological tales.

Author Danny Peary, in his CULT MOVIES books, has even suggested that Leone's Westerns take place in some bizarre alternate universe where what we perceive as "reality" does not apply. When I first read that theory I thought it sounded pretentious--but GBU does seem to play out on a weird, alien setting. The Spanish locations no doubt contribute to that atmosphere, but all of Leone's films have their own kind of internal logic. If you want realism, you'd better stay away from the cinema of Sergio Leone. Trying to explain the screenplay of GBU is a thankless task--Leone wasn't interested in the movie making sense, he was after the "big moment"--and GBU has plenty of them.

For the first big moment, let's start out at the start of GBU--when we see the face of actor Al Mulock suddenly appear in an extreme close-up. Mulock and two other men are shown slowly advancing on a ghost town, with determined looks on the faces. At first the viewer assumes that the men are going to engage in a shootout with one another, but the trio are all after the same man. The trio break through the door of a dilapidated building, we hear the sounds of gunfire, and a figure jumps through one of the building's windows. It is here that we are finally introduced to one of GBU's main characters, Tuco, in the form of Eli Wallach. There is no dialogue in this sequence, there is no explanation to why the three men are trying to kill Tuco--we are given no relevant information about what is going on. It's a sequence that grabs the viewer's attention and makes one wonder what the heck is going on. The introductions of Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood follow the same pattern--these men just appear, and when they do, we are not told who they are, or what their purpose is. I realize that this type of storytelling would drive an audience used to 21st Century entertainment nuts--but to me it is fascinating. Because we know so very little about the characters in GBU, they seem to have a larger-than-life aura about them.

The one GBU character we do wind up knowing something about is Tuco--you could say that he is a "lower-than-life" character. I wrote a blog post in June 2014 fully examining Eli Wallach's brilliant portrayal of Tuco, so I won't discuss him too much here. But I will say that Tuco is the real star of GBU, and having an actor like Wallach play against such stoic performers as Van Cleef and Eastwood was a clever move on Leone's part. Every time Tuco is on screen, it is a big moment.

There are so many other highlights in GBU it would take me forever to fully discuss them all. The prison camp sequence, the shootout between Van Cleef's gang and Wallach and Eastwood in the bombed-out town, the epic Battle of Langstone Bridge, the three-way gunfight at the end--all of these sequences are almost mini-movies in themselves, and each one of them would be the major focus of any other movie. The fact that all these set pieces are in one film is a testament to Leone's ability as a filmmaker. Film is a visual medium, and GBU is as visual as it gets. Try comparing GBU with any other film made in 1966, and you'll see why Leone's directorial style hasn't aged. GBU seems years ahead of its time, because it really doesn't belong to any period, despite its being set during the American Civil War.

Speaking of GBU and the Civil War--for years and years I assumed that the Civil War incidents shown in the movie were pure historical fiction. But there really was a New Mexico-Texas campaign in the war, and the opposing Generals mentioned in the movie (Canby and Sibley) really did exist, and they did serve in that campaign. Was the campaign as extensive as what is shown in GBU? I doubt it, but it's telling that Leone went out of his way to try and include actual Civil War detail in the story, when so many "respectable" films based on the war get so many things wrong.

Any discussion of GBU has to include the iconic music of Ennio Morricone. The music for GBU is as important as any of the actors, or even Leone's style--some have suggested that Morricone "directed" the film as much as Leone did. The synthesis between Morricone's score and the movie is absolute--you cannot take one away from the other. The very first original soundtrack I ever bought (on cassette tape!) was THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY soundtrack. I've been a Morricone fanatic to this day. Fifty years later, you can hear "The Ecstasy of Gold" on TV commercials, and the GBU main theme has been used in various ways. The GBU soundtrack has to be considered one of the most important scores in movie history.

So many things have come about because of my first viewing of GBU. It was the first Sergio Leone film I had ever seen, and since then I've seen all of his films, and he has become one of my favorite directors. It revealed to me the magnificence of the music of Ennio Morricone, and showed me the importance a score has on the perception of a movie. I wasn't that much of a Western fan before seeing GBU, and after I started to appreciate and learn more about one of the cinema's greatest genres. Watching THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY opened me up to how movies didn't have to fit a certain pattern, or have a normal running time, or have "regular" leading characters. GBU is exciting, funny, grandiose, sarcastic, moving, violent, and altogether stimulating. Many modern-day filmmakers have tried to copy the Leone style, but they can't. There's nothing like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY--it stands on its own.