Monday, August 7, 2017

THE UNCANNY









The latest entry in my YouTube Theater viewings is THE UNCANNY, a anthology horror film filmed in Canada and England in late 1976. The movie tries to be on the level of more famous multi-part terrors as DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, but it falls way short.

THE UNCANNY was co-produced by Milton Subotsky, and he provided the stories for Michael Parry's screenplay. Subotsky was the co-founder of Amicus Productions, the company that made the films I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. Subotsky had parted ways with his Amicus partner Max Rosenberg, and set up THE UNCANNY as an independent production. Like his earlier Amicus horror tales, Subotsky gathered up a number of notable actors for his new venture, such as Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, Joan Greenwood, Donald Pleasence, Samantha Eggar, and John Vernon.

By 1976, however, the English Gothic film had all been rendered extinct (the movie that Peter Cushing had worked on earlier in that year, STAR WARS, just about finished the genre off when it was released). THE UNCANNY seems stale and old-fashioned, even when compared to the Amicus films Subotsky worked on only a few years before.

The linking story of THE UNCANNY deals with Wilbur Gray (Peter Cushing), a strange character who is trying to get his new book published by Frank Richards (Ray Milland). Gray's work purports to show that the common cat is actually a danger to humans all over the world. Gray proceeds to tell Richards three stories that will supposedly back his claims.

The first story takes place in England, 1912. A rich old woman (Joan Greenwood) plans to change her will and leave her fortune to her many. many cats, instead of her nephew. The old lady's maid (Susan Penhaligon) is in love with the nephew and tries to steal the new will while her mistress is asleep. The woman wakes up and the maid suffocates her...only to have the dead woman's voluminous collection of cats take revenge by besieging the maid in the old woman's home and attacking her.

This is probably the best of THE UNCANNY's three tales (which isn't saying much). It occurred to me that this story is basically a retread of Hammer's SHADOW OF THE CAT (that's more fuel to throw on the fire of the rivalry between Subotsky/Amicus and Hammer).

Gray's second example takes place in 1975 Quebec. A young girl named Lucy, who has lost her parents in a plane crash, is taken in by her Aunt and Uncle. Accompanying Lucy is her cat, named Wellington. Lucy's Aunt doesn't like cats, and Lucy's spoiled cousin Angela is jealous of it. Angela blames the cat for her own trouble making, and her mother decides to get rid of it...but Wellington returns, and encourages Lucy to take revenge through use of the occult, which she does by shrinking Angela to the size of a mouse. The scenes of the spellbound Angela vs. Wellington are very reminiscent of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. What's most interesting about this tale is that Chloe Franks plays Angela. In THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, Franks played a role very much Lucy--here she's the victim of black magic instead of the perpetrator.

The final tale is set in 1936 Hollywood. An egotistical actor (Donald Pleasence) "accidentally" kills his wife during the filming of his latest horror movie. The actor's mistress (Samantha Eggar) immediately fills in, at the studio and at home...but the devious couple have failed to reckon with the late wife's cat, who brings about a grisly comeuppance for both.

This story attempts to be satirical, in the manner of the climax of THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, which also happened to feature an egotistical horror movie actor (who was played by Jon Pertwee). I say "attempts"...because it just isn't funny. The story resembles a skit from the Carol Burnett TV show--except it isn't as entertaining. You'd think the one thing a horror satire would get right is making fun of actual horror movies, but the 1936 setting doesn't jibe with the Edgar Allan Poe-Roger Corman style movie being made.

In the end, THE UNCANNY isn't very uncanny. The whole point of the movie is that cats are plotting against us...but in the stories being shown, the only people harmed by the felines are nasty folks who deserve to "get it". The cats appear to be dishing out a form of cosmic justice instead of targeting the innocent. There may be some out there who are afraid of cats, but I'm sure there's many more cat lovers. The average house cat just doesn't seem all that scary. Director Denis Heroux spends a lot of time showing various cats in close-up, and there's a lot of shots of the critters leaping about, but despite all of that there isn't a real sense of menace.

Peter Cushing doesn't have much screen time in THE UNCANNY, but he does enough to convince the audience of Wilbur Gray's bizarre beliefs. Cushing's Gray is a trembling, worried man, and a bit disheveled (as I've mentioned on this blog before, when Cushing's hair is in disarray, you know things are not going too well). If there is a reason to see THE UNCANNY, it is for Cushing, despite his small role.

As I've mentioned, every story in THE UNCANNY reminds me of a much better film. It's as if Milton Subotsky had scraped the bottom of the barrel for ideas and made a few adjustments on earlier stories. The horror anthology film has a lot of promising possibilities, but too many of them follow the same old pattern of using the EC Comics/Robert Bloch format of disreputable characters getting supernatural just desserts.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The British Invaders Blogathon: The Dr. (not Doctor) Who Films









This is the fourth annual British Invaders Blogathon, and I believe I've taken part in every single one of them. For this one I decided to focus on a subject that is as British as you can get--but with a twist. The BBC television series DOCTOR WHO is a worldwide entertainment phenomenon, with over 50 years of history....but this post will be covering the two films based on the character. DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS was made in 1965, and DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. was produced the very next year. Both movies starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor--or more accurately, "Dr. Who", which is what the character was called in the films. The difference between Dr. and Doctor is a subtle, but telling one. Cushing's "Dr. Who" has very little in common with "The Doctor" of the famed TV series.

Perhaps the Dr. Who films should be referred to as the Dalek films. The evil aliens had been a sensation since they were introduced on the DOCTOR WHO TV show in late 1963, and executive producer Joe Vegoda joined forces with Amicus' Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky to make a feature film taking advantage of this popularity. The Daleks are the real stars of these films--Dr. Who himself takes a backseat in the movies' advertising (just look at the original posters below). Amicus wanted the Daleks to be the main attraction since the character of the Doctor was only known in England, and these films were meant to be seen all over the world. (Amicus assumed that robotic-like creatures with a penchant for destruction would grab the attention of kids rather than a grouchy mysterious old man, which was how the Doctor was then played on TV by William Hartnell.) DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS was based on Terry Nation's multi-episode story "The Daleks", which introduced the aliens on TV.




Peter Cushing as Dr. (not Doctor) Who


Milton Subotsky's screenplay for DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS follows the original TV story closely for the most part. The big difference is how the Doctor is portrayed. Instead of a crotchety alien, this film's Dr. Who is a kindly, absent-minded human professor who has invented a device called TARDIS, which can travel throughout space and time. Note that I did not call it the TARDIS--in these films the device is called just TARDIS. The eccentric Dr. Who, along with his granddaughters Susan (Roberta Tovey) and Barbara (Jennie Linden), and Barbara's clumsy boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle), takes flight in TARDIS and bumbles his way to the Daleks' home planet, where the group helps the native Thals fight the robot-like creatures.






In DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D., Dr. Who is joined by Susan (Roberta Tovey again) and niece Louise (Jill Curzon). A London constable named Tom (Bernard Cribbins) inadvertently enters TARDIS, thinking it to be a real police call box. Soon Dr. Who & company arrive in the year 2150 (where everything looks suspiciously from the mid-1960s). They find that the Daleks have taken over the Earth, and the group joins forces with other rebels to defeat the aliens and save the planet.

DALEKS--INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. is the better of the two films, with much more action and special effects, including Dalek spaceships. Milton Subotsky once again wrote the screenplay, this time based on the TV serial "The Dalek Invasion of Earth". This second Dr. Who feature was not as financially successful as the first, and Amicus decided not to make further films based on the character or the Daleks.





I believe that the Dr. Who films are nice, Saturday matinee-type adventures. Both films were in color and in widescreen, which was a major selling point when the films were originally released (the DOCTOR WHO TV show at the time was shown in black & white). Gordon Flemyng was the director on both films, and he keeps things at a rapid pace. The fact that both movies were condensed versions of multi-episode TV stories works in their favor....if you have seen enough classic DOCTOR WHO stories you know that much of the action involves the Doctor and his companions being captured, and escaping, and being captured and escaping, over and over again. The Dr. Who movies eliminate extraneous plot devices.

Many people look back on the films today and find them disappointing, mainly because the character of the Doctor differs so greatly from the TV show. But one has to place the films in their proper context. The movies were made for a mostly children's market, and sci-fi action was the major highlight. One has to consider that much of the extensive mythology surrounding the character of the TV Doctor had not yet even been created yet (the Doctor had not even had his first regeneration when these movies were made). The producers were trying to ride the wave of Dalekmaina, and they were not all that concerned about keeping continuity with a children's TV show that had only been on the air for a few years. The films have to be looked on as a separate entity from the television show--especially the 21st Century version of the program, with its overly complicated plots and soap opera-like elements involving the Doctor's companions. I'm sure that no one involved with the Dr. Who movies thought that they would be still discussed and debated 50 years later.

Peter Cushing's performance as Dr. Who has come under some major fan controversy. Bring up the Dr. Who feature films on any Peter Cushing groups on the internet and you're bound to get some strong reactions. There are some Cushing devotees who can't stand it when the great actor tries to be comic. I have to admit that Cushing lays the "funny old man" routine on a bit thick during the Dr. Who movies....but these films were made for a younger audience, and Cushing felt that this was the way to go. He certainly wasn't going to do a William Hartnell impression. The Dr. Who films give no backstory on the character (we don't even find out how such a muddled person can invent something like the TARDIS, let alone how he got the money to finance such a thing), so Cushing didn't have much to work with. He decided that these movies called for a more lighthearted portrayal than one was accustomed to getting from the actor in his many horror roles. His Dr. Who may frustrate some of his fans today, but Cushing enjoyed working on these films and getting away (if briefly) from the terror genre. I wouldn't want to see Cushing's "funny old man" routine in film after film, but in the Dr. Who movies I think for the most part it works.

I feel that the best way to appreciate the Dr. Who movies is to look on them as being part of an alternate universe. This is science-fiction, after all...who's to say that Cushing's Dr. Who isn't just part of a different time stream. The Dr. Who films are not part of the official continuity of the Doctor Who character--the BBC doesn't even have the rights to the films (Studio Canal does). Obviously the BBC is not going to go out of their way to bring attention to these movies. The result is that the Dr. Who films now reside in a type of limbo. They're based on DOCTOR WHO...but it's not really DOCTOR WHO. Cushing is not considered to belong among the constantly growing group of actors who have played the Doctor. (I can't tell you how many times I've mentioned to someone that Peter Cushing played Dr. Who in the movies, only to have that person respond with absolute surprise.)

However you define Peter Cushing's Dr. Who, the two films made around the character are worth seeing. Both movies are colorful, lighthearted, fast-paced adventures which were made to be enjoyed--not obsessively nit-picked over like so much of the Doctor Who Universe is today.

Monday, July 31, 2017

BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM On Blu-ray









A REAL Batman movie has just been released on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993) was produced by the folks behind the wonderful BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. That TV show--and this movie--are far more truer to Batman's comic book roots than any of the character's live-action appearances.

Major gangsters are being killed in Gotham City, and the Batman is being blamed for it. The Caped Crusader's investigations of the murder wave lead him to some painful memories--mainly a broken relationship with the beautiful Andrea Beaumont, a woman that Bruce Wayne almost married. Andrea may have a connection with the gangland killings through her father. Batman's pursuit of this new vigilante--the Phantasm--also puts him in the path of the nefarious Joker, with devastating revelations for all concerned.

Clocking in at a compact 76 minutes, this movie might be mistaken as just an extra-length episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, but it's much more than that. MASK OF THE PHANTASM carries a PG rating, but it is a very dark story. The Phantasm does kill people, after all, and much of the story takes place during rain-soaked night scenes. During a flashback concerning Bruce Wayne's romance with Andrea Beaumont, the millionaire crime fighter feels guilty that if he marries the woman, he is turning his back on his vow to avenge his parent's deaths--which leads to Bruce having a breakdown in front of his parents' graves. This sequence has more emotional resonance than all the live-action Batman movies combined.

Usually when there is a romance for Bruce Wayne in a Batman movie, it comes off as contrived. Here it's totally believable, due to the earnest vocal performances by Kevin Conroy (who has portrayed the Dark Knight more than any other actor) and Dana Delany (who would go on to provide the voice of Lois Lane in Warner's Superman animated series). The Bruce Wayne-Andrea Beaumont relationship gives MASK OF THE PHANTASM a layer of dramatic weight that the "real" DC movies do not have.

The Joker has a only a supporting role in this film, but it's an important one, and Mark Hamill is dangerously funny as the Clown Prince of Crime. We also get to hear such character actors as Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, and Dick Miller. I would be remiss if I did not mention the droll subtlety of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred.

BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM comes to Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen. The movie is also presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The movie looks much brighter than the old DVD version, but it retains the classic animated look, which I prefer to today's too-perfect and too-sterile computer animation. The sound is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 stereo, and it is a booming mix, showcasing the action scenes and Shirley Walker's haunting music score.

I've always felt that BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES was the best representation of Batman in any medium other than DC comics. MASK OF THE PHANTASM was made during the series' height, and I can truly say that the only better Batman movie that has been made since is BATMAN BEGINS. If you think that animated means "kids stuff", you would be totally off the mark concerning MASK OF THE PHANTASM. It is a Batman movie for true Bat-fans. I do have to point out that it might be too dark for very young children.




Tuesday, July 25, 2017

DUNKIRK










I've always admired Christopher Nolan's film making abilities. He is a master at putting together intense, thrilling action sequences. I just haven't been able to love his movies as much as others. I've found his films to be overlong, overly complicated, and filled with too many climaxes.

With DUNKIRK Nolan has found the perfect subject for his considerable talents. Focusing on one historical incident brings out the best in the writer-director. The real-life saga of the British Expeditionary Force trapped on the coast of France in late spring of 1940, and facing utter annihilation from the German military, has enough dramatics on its own without Nolan inventing more. The actual timeline of the event keeps the film at a crisp 106 minutes, and Nolan has the audience on the edge of their seats during the entire time.

The film has three main points of view--an ordinary British soldier trying to get off the beach, an English civilian sailing his personal boat to Dunkirk to help in the evacuation, and a Spitfire pilot in the skies above. Nolan switches back and forth between the three subplots, compressing and stretching time, never letting the viewer catch a breath. There's no downtime in this film--Nolan strips away the usual war movie cliches. There's no scenes of wives and girlfriends waiting anxiously back home, or meetings of the German High Command, or shots of Winston Churchill staring pensively at a map. We're right in the thick of things with the protagonists in the sea, the air, and on the beach. The overall effect is riveting--and Nolan pulls it off without copious amounts of CGI gore.

We get no background information whatsoever on the characters in this film--for most of them we don't even get to learn their names. Some may find this annoying, but I think in this instance it works. Because we don't really know the characters we don't know how they will react to the various situations inflected on them--thus increasing the drama. There's no obvious war movie types here--the overall situation is more important than any one single character.

DUNKIRK is very much a visual experience--the images of real Spitfires soaring through the skies are awe-inspiring--but the sound design is noteworthy as well. Mention must be made of frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who contributes not so much a classic music score, but a driving tonal effect that ratchets up the tension.

It would be very easy for me to go on and on about DUNKIRK--but I would much rather have you see the film for yourself than spend time reading my opinion on it. I wonder if the movie will find the wide audience it deserves--at the screening I attended for it I was the youngest person in the theater, and I'm in my mid 40s. I hope DUNKIRK does not get branded as a "old white persons" story. The Second World War was the most monumental event in modern history--and in 2017 it's very easy to take for granted that the Allies won. If the BEF had been wiped out on the beaches of Dunkirk, or captured, the United Kingdom very well might have had to sign a treaty with Germany--and if that happened, where would have the D-Day invasion been staged from? DUNKIRK is a brilliantly made spectacle concerning human courage and tenacity, and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, no matter what their backgrounds or ages may be.




Saturday, July 22, 2017

SHALAKO










Movies don't get much more offbeat than SHALAKO. The 1968 Western was filmed in Spain, directed by a man who came out of the Hollywood studio system, and stars a collection of international actors. SHALAKO has just been released on Region A Blu-ray by Kino Studio Classics.

Sean Connery is SHALAKO--this was one of the first films he made after his initial retirement from the role of James Bond. The movie was based on a novel by Louis L'Amour, and a text introduction by the author states that throughout the 19th Century, European elites would take excursions into the American frontier in search of adventure and excitement. Connery's Shalako, a frontier scout, encounters a group of such aristocrats in the American Southwest. The group, which includes a Countess (Brigitte Bardot), a Baron (Peter Van Eyck), an English couple (Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman), and a former U.S. Senator (Alexander Knox), has been led into Apache territory by their unscrupulous guide (Stephen Boyd). Shalako tries to warn the group of the danger that they are in, but they refuse to take him seriously, leading to the Apaches attacking and the embattled party having to work together to survive.

During the beginning of this film it takes some getting used to seeing Connery decked out in cowboy gear and riding a horse, but he does rather well in the role and the period. The actor is certainly masculine enough to put across the idea that he's someone well versed in the ways of the frontier. The characters of the hunting party are basically arrogant fools, and one wonders why Shalako would risk his life for them. Shalako is interested in the Countess, for obvious reasons (she's played by Brigitte Bardot, after all), but it's hard for a viewer to make a connection with her because Bardot's accent is so thick it's almost impossible to understand what she's saying. (Bardot also spends the entire movie wearing enough eyeliner to punch a hole in the ozone layer). Shalako may go out of his way to save the aristocrats for the Countess's sake, but it's doubtful the two characters could have a lasting relationship.

The leader of the band of Apaches is man called Chato, and he's played by Woody Strode. Apparently Chato is the same character played by Charles Bronson in CHATO'S LAND (talk about your shared cinema universes). Strode makes a powerful impression with very little screen time, but the big showdown between Chato and Shalako at the end of the film is something of an anti-climax.

A couple of other Bond veterans were part of the SHALAKO crew--cinematographer Ted Moore and stuntman/stunt arranger Bob Simmons. Simmons was kept pretty busy on this film (lots of folks fall off of horses in this story), but director Edward Dmytryk handles the action sequences in a generic fashion. (Dmytryk, who is more notorious for his involvement in the Hollywood blacklist controversy of the early 1950s, made a far better Western called WARLOCK.) As for Moore, his photography is hindered by the arid, depressing Spanish locations (if you've seen a number of Spaghetti Westerns, you might actually recognize some of them).

The Spanish locations, and the international cast, reminds one of a Spaghetti Western--but SHALAKO is nowhere near as outlandish or stylish as a typical outing from that genre. The movie will be most appreciated by Sean Connery fans and film buffs.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING









The Marvel Cinematic Universe steamroller continues with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. Tom Holland made a fine debut as the Web Slinger in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and he capably handles the responsibilities of being the main star of a major comic book film.

Holland is the third big-screen Spider-Man in the last 15 years. At this rate, in a couple of decades from now, there will be as many Spideys as Doctor Whos. Hopefully Holland will stick around for awhile, because he's appealing and believable as a misfit teen aged Peter Parker. This new Spider-Man film spends a lot of time dealing with Peter's high school adventures, so if you are like me and don't look back too fondly on those years, you might get somewhat impatient during these scenes.

But there is plenty of requisite comic book movie action. Remember that now the movie Spider-Man is an official part of the MCU, which thankfully broadens the character's scope. Spidey's taste of action in CIVIL WAR leaves him hungering for more, and badgering Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr of course) for a shot at the big time. Stark provides Peter with a special tripped-out Spidey suit, and the young hero is able to "communicate" with it. This comes very close to the Iron Man-Jarvis dynamic....but Peter's gadgets are taken away from him before the finale, which sets up a variation of the "with great power comes great responsibility" motif, provided by Tony Stark, of all people.

Despite Holland's fine performance, the real standout of the film is Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka "The Vulture". Many of the Marvel Films' villains have wound up being underwhelming, but Keaton's Toomes breaks the mold. Keaton's Vulture isn't a powerful being with an outlandish scheme for global domination--he's an ordinary guy who feels he's doing what he needs to support himself and his family. He's someone that you could believe might really exist, and Keaton's interactions with Holland are some of the best hero-villain confrontations in comic book movie history.

I do have to point out that the major plot revelation in this film might be too much of a coincidence...but I still wouldn't put it in the "My mother's name is Martha" category. This movie is also definitely skewed toward the younger crowd, with all the high school hijinks. But old fogeys like me will enjoy it--I certainly did. I was kind of surprised that Marisa Tomei's Aunt May didn't have more of a major part in the proceedings, but that's probably because she's being set up for an important role for the next Spider-Man film (watch HOMECOMING and you'll know why I think that). SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is fun and enjoyable, and it's a comic book movie you can take kids to see.

Friday, July 14, 2017

HELL IN THE PACIFIC On Kino Blu-ray









One of the most unusual war films ever made comes to Region A Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968) is about as stripped down a film as you can get--if features Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as two soldiers stranded on a small island in the South Pacific during World War II, and the duo make up the entire cast.

The movie was directed by John Boorman, a man who has one of the most diverse and intriguing resumes of any living filmmaker. Filmed on location in the Palau Islands, HELL IN THE PACIFIC makes no allowances to its audience whatsoever. We are given absolutely no backstory on the two men fighting for survival--we don't even learn their names. The duo start out trying to outwit and outfox the other, but eventually come to a grudging unspoken agreement to work together in getting off the island. Even toward the end there's no "special moment" in which the men connect--they always remain alien to one another, and they barely communicate. The story has very little dialogue, but when Toshiro Mifune does speak his words are not subtitled--Boorman did this to make viewers appreciate the characters' plight.

Suffice to say, the artistic highlights of a film like this are probably lost on those used to 21st Century entertainment. I suspect that many who saw this picture when it first came out were puzzled by it as well. Boorman doesn't go the easy route and make either Marvin or Mifune an obvious "good" or "bad" guy--they are just two men trying to deal with circumstances and with each other. The duo are not super warriors or emotionless iron men, but they are not men to be trifled with, either. The best thing about this film is the casting of Marvin and Mifune. Both actors didn't have to act tough--they were real tough guys, the type of men who could say more with a steely glance than by spouting a couple pages of dialogue. (Both men were also actual veterans of the Second World War.) Marvin and Mifune were perfect for this story.

The other highlight of HELL IN THE PACIFIC is the majestic cinematography from the legendary Conrad Hall, who makes grand use of the beautiful desolation of the South Pacific. (By the way, the camera operator on this film was none other than Jordan Croenweth, who would become a renowned DOP in his own right on such films as BLADE RUNNER.) The outstanding visuals are much needed on a story that does not have many action scenes. If you are expecting Marvin and Mifune to engage in an out-and-out lengthy slugfest, you will be disappointed. HELL IN THE PACIFIC runs 103 minutes, and after a while one gets the feeling that Boorman was working hard in coming up with things for the characters to do without killing each other and bringing the tale to an end. This Blu-ray features two different endings, and both of them are very anti-climatic. In my opinion, HELL IN THE PACIFIC is an admirable effort, but it is not a movie for all tastes, and it definitely is not a mainstream war picture.

Kino does its usual excellent job on this Blu-ray, with superior visuals and sound. A brand new interview with John Boorman is provided, and the director delves into the many difficulties involved in making this offbeat production. Boorman reveals that his biggest challenge was Toshiro Mifune--the Japanese cinema legend went out of his way to cause all sorts of problems. (Lee Marvin and Mifune, however, got along great--the two spent most of their off-camera time together getting drunk.) There is also an interview with art director Anthony Pratt, who shares his experiences working on the film.

An audio commentary is provided on this Blu-ray featuring Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman. Both men give out numerous details about the film, including the many connections between much of the behind-the-camera talent and Toho Studios....but the duo also spend a lot of time talking about John Boorman's other directorial efforts, and they sound much more enthusiastic while doing so. The Blu-ray case sleeve is reversible, and the alternate cover image makes the film look like a typical 1940s Hollywood WWII flick.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES








In the early 2010s, IDW in association with Fantastic Press released a series of books on what might be considered the best films from three distinct genres. The books were TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES, TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES, and TOP 100 FANTASY MOVIES. All the volumes were written, edited, and designed by Gary Gerani (who is the main force behind the many STAR WARS Topps trading card books). The latest book in the series is TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES.

I have all the books in the TOP 100 series. They have a colorful, clean design, with several stills from the movies discussed. Gerani gives a concise overview of each film, and includes basic cast & crew information and a very brief (thankfully) plot summary. He then goes into why he has included the film into the book's top 100. The books are for more of a mainstream audience than hard core film buffs, but I appreciate that tack--by doing this the author avoids being pretentious and he also brings up films that are not one of the "usual suspects" when it comes to lists like this.

TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES continues in the same vein as the other volumes in the series. The one drawback of this book is that the way these comic book adaptations are being churned out, Gerani may have to rewrite the whole thing about three years from now. That being said, the author does not strictly deal with only major comic character films made in the past couple decades. Movies that have been adapted from newspaper comic strips qualify for this list, so we get films such as the FLASH GORDON serials, the 1982 ANNIE, and a 1931 tale called SKIPPY starring a very young Jackie Cooper (who of course went on to play Perry White in the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies).

I have to say that out of all the TOP 100 books the comic book entry is the one on which I disagree with the author the most on the placement of certain films. I think he has both X-MEN and WATCHMEN too low, and he has the recent DC films way too high. I don't have any major problems with the book overall though. If you love the 21st Century big-budget spectaculars, you'll find many of them here--and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-represented. (Gerani's take on some of the various MCU entries is quite unique.) I'm not going to reveal what the author believes is the No. 1 comic book movie, but if you are a purveyor of Geek Culture, you can easily figure it out on your own.

At the end of the book Gerani gives a quick appreciation of several comic book movies that failed to make the list, and he names his Top 10 Comic Book Movie Makers. The book also has a very welcome index.

A few folks may not like to admit it, but the fact is that films based on comic book material are basically driving and sustaining the entertainment industry. I think that ignoring this, or treating comic book movies as unworthy of proper analysis and discussion, is a mistake. TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES is a fun, colorful, easy to read book that is a step in the direction of treating these films as a separate genre that deserves articulate and thoughtful critical interpretation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

ISLAND OF TERROR On Blu-ray












The 1966 British science-fiction/horror film ISLAND OF TERROR has finally been given a Region A Blu-ray release courtesy of the good folks at Shout Factory. Directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing, the movie has gained some new fans in recent years due to it being shown by Svengoolie on his MeTV program.

Terence Fisher is best known for his mastery of English Gothic cinema, but he did helm more than a few science-fiction features. ISLAND OF TERROR is the best of that group. Eminent doctors Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and David West (Edward Judd) travel to a small island off the east coast of Ireland to investigate the discovery of a body without any bones. The two men learn that research at a mysterious laboratory on the island has caused the creation of creatures called "silicates"--creatures that were supposed to destroy cancer cells. The silicates are now running (well, actually, moving slowly) all over the island, attacking any beings in their path. The creatures are seemingly indestructible, and Stanley and West must find a way to stop them, despite the fact that they are stuck on an island with very little resources and very little time.

What makes ISLAND OF TERROR work is Fisher's concise, get-to-the-point directorial style. The story moves quickly, and suspense is built up due to the characters being trapped in a remote location. Peter Cushing gets to play a contemporary, "normal" person (if you consider a distinguished pathologist normal), and he's obviously enjoying himself here, bringing to the role a dry sense of humor. Cushing is helped out by the underrated Edward Judd. Judd always brought a slightly cynical, let's get on with it type of attitude to his fantastic film roles such as FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, and he and Cushing make a great monster fighting team. Their realistic approach as actors to an outlandish situation adds immeasurably to the film.

Every good monster movie has to have a Scream Queen, and Carole Gray capably fills that role here. The only reason she is in the movie is because she's young, attractive, and female--her character could have easily been written out of the script with no effect to the story whatsoever--but hey, I'm not complaining. Several of the locals on the island are played by veterans of other British fantastic films, such as Niall MacGinnis, Eddie Byrne, and Sam Kydd.

Probably the most memorable--some would say the most notorious--characters in ISLAND OF TERROR are the silicates themselves. I would describe them as a cross between a large mutated turtle shell and a disfigured rock. They can suck the bones out of humans or animals just by contact--but they're not exactly the fastest monsters in the world (they make Lon Chaney Jr.'s Kharis the Mummy seem like Rickey Henderson). But they do have the ability to climb trees! When the silicates divide, they leave a residue that looks like chicken noodle soup--another reason why ISLAND OF TERROR sticks in the memory of so many Monster Movie fans.

A Region A Blu-ray of ISLAND OF TERROR has been long overdue--as a matter of fact, the movie never even got an official Region 1 DVD release. I've seen ISLAND OF TERROR a number of times, and the color has always looked pale and yellowish. This Blu-ray is without doubt the best I have ever seen the movie look. The visual quality is sharper, brighter, and definitely more colorful--if you have bootleg copies of this title on disc, you don't need them anymore. The movie is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and the audio, which is full and vibrant, is in DTS-HD Mono. I must point out that this Blu-ray features the uncut version of the film--which means you'll get to see in all of its glory the infamous sequence where Edward Judd uses extreme measures to save Peter Cushing from the silicates.

The Blu-ray has some nifty extras as well. A new audio commentary is provided by Dr. Robert J. Kiss. It's an excellent one, as Kiss offers up pertinent detail on all aspects of the production and still finds time to give some critical analysis. He also gets in some droll comments as well (thankfully he doesn't take the movie too seriously). About halfway through the film, Kiss takes a back seat and allows Rick Pruitt to provide his memories on what it was like to view ISLAND OF TERROR at an American drive-in during its original U.S. release. A five-minute still gallery is also included, and it has some stunning stills of Carole Gray. There's also a very worn-looking original trailer. The Blu-ray has a reversible disc cover, and in my opinion the best image is the one in the picture above.

An official American DVD or Blu-ray release of ISLAND OF TERROR has been long overdue. Why Universal never got around to doing it is a mystery, especially since the film's star is a legend like Peter Cushing. Thankfully, Shout Factory under its Scream Factory label has given the movie the home video treatment it deserves.




Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS--THE TESTAMENT OF LAWRENCE STEWART TALBOT









I'm sure most of you are aware of the so-called "Dark Universe"--the attempt by Universal Studios to have their own Marvel-like multi-feature storyline featuring legendary classic monsters instead of comic book characters. I don't have too much confidence in this idea--but if Universal was smart, they'd hire author Frank J. Dello Stritto right away as a production consultant. His new book A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS--THE TESTAMENT OF LAWRENCE STEWART TALBOT is a unique and fascinating examination of the Universal Monsters legacy in the form of a "biography" of Lawrence Talbot, the character played by Lon Chaney Jr. in five films, and better known as The Wolf Man.

The author starts out with the supposition that Lawrence Talbot disappeared after the events of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and Talbot's steamer trunk was left behind in an apartment house. The landlord of the house was the author's Uncle, and after his passing Talbot's journals were found inside the trunk. Dello Stritto "reveals" the contents of the journals.

The result is a Old Monster Movie Fan's dream. This book is not written as a joke, or a gimmick. The author has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the Universal Monster series, and he creatively fills in several of the "blanks" that exist in the Universal Monster timeline. One of the things that has always bothered me about the original THE WOLF MAN is the idea that Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. were supposed to be father & son. Dello Stritto explains why the two could be so different yet so closely related by delving into the history of the Talbot family, and ingeniously using stills of Rains and Lon Jr. from other films to represent other members of the clan. The author also goes into what happened to the Wolf Man when he was supposedly "dead" in between his film appearances. We also find out why Talbot was back to his wolfish self in A & C MEET FRANKENSTEIN when he was apparently "cured" at the end of HOUSE OF DRACULA.

Dello Stritto doesn't just limit himself to Universal horror films. Many characters from other thrillers made in the 1930s-1950s pop up in the narrative...and quite a few fictional folks from non-horror films of the period as well. I don't want to reveal who some of these characters are, simply because I want the reader to be as pleasantly surprised by these cameos as I was. Most of these characters will be familiar to above-average film buffs, but even I had to check on IMDB to figure out who some of them were.

These classic film references are not just a film geek's crazy theories haphazardly thrown together. Dello Stritto weaves pop culture signposts in and out of the tale with the touch of an assured novelist. The overall story never seems contrived, or ridiculous....and I dare say it holds together far better than the scripts of the films that the author was inspired by.

I really enjoyed this book--in fact, it even exceeded my expectations. The creativity shown in it is astounding--I can't tell you how many times I stopped reading and said to myself, "I wish I had thought of that!" I've spent most of my life watching the Universal monster movies, and the various other films referenced in this book, and I know them like the back of my hand. Seeing them presented this way--as if they actually happened in history, and that their stories and characters overlap with one another--is pure catnip for movie geeks.

I do have to say that your enjoyment of this book will be directly related to how much of a film buff you are. It was published by Cult Movie Press, and it has a very attractive design. It runs over 500 pages, so you are certainly getting your money's worth. I believe it is one of the best movie books I have read in the last few years. I could go on and on about this book, and what's in it, but I don't want to, because it needs to be read, instead of blogged about. Here's hoping that Frank Dello Stritto winds up writing a series of these books--maybe next there will be a look at the life of Baron Victor Frankenstein, as played by Peter Cushing?


Monday, June 19, 2017

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY





The latest issue of Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine (issue #38) is dedicated to a complete examination of the 1973 television production of FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. The issue features Sam Irvin's incredibly detailed account of the making of the film, including several interviews with members of the cast & crew. The magazine also has a stunning array of artwork inspired by the production, from such talents as Mark Maddox, Bruce Timm, and Neil Vokes. It is one of the best issues of LSOH ever.

When I heard that LSOH was going to do a special issue on FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. I decided I should watch the film myself. I had never seen it, but I was aware of it--it was mentioned in almost all of the monster movie books I had read as a kid. Those books didn't seem to impressed with it--the consensus was that it certainly wasn't the "true story" according to Mary Shelley's novel. I acquired the film on DVD from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers for only $5. This DVD contains the complete original three-hour presentation of the film, in two parts. I watched the DVD a few months ago, and viewed it again after completely reading LSOH #38.

Producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. planned for FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY to be a mammoth, ambitious project. The script was written by acclaimed playwright Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, and Stromberg tried to get as much big name on and off screen talent for the film as he could. Sam Irvin relates all of this in LSOH #38 including the various (and noteworthy) names attached to the production at one time or another. The result is that FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY winds up being unlike any other Frankenstein film--or any other horror film, for that matter. It's definitely unlike any other TV movie I have ever seen. The budget for FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY was huge--so huge that the movie makes the Hammer Gothic theatrical movies made at the same time seem tawdry by comparison. The production design, the English locations, the costumes, the esteemed cast--this is more of an event instead of a Frankenstein movie.

Because it is so unique, and so unlike anything I have seen before, it is hard for me to put it into context with other Frankenstein adaptations. I can't compare it with another horror film--heck, I can't even compare it with any other TV movie or mini-series.

The film was originally broadcast on the NBC Television network in two parts. Part One begins in the early 1800s, as young doctor Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) witnesses the accidental drowning of his younger brother William. (This sequence is handled so quickly and abruptly that it dilutes the impact it is supposed to have on Victor.) Frankenstein is so unnerved by this incident he determines to continue his medical studies, with the ultimate goal of bringing life from death. The young man meets the misanthropic Dr. Henry Clerval (David McCallum), and the pair are soon constructing their own grand experiment--a perfect body to give life to. Frankenstein's loyalty to Clerval disappoints his fiancee Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett). Clerval introduces Frankenstein to a former "colleague", a mysterious older man named Dr. Polidori (James Mason). Before Victor and Clerval can finish their experiment, Clerval dies--which leads Victor to put Clerval's brain into their creation and give it life.

The Creature (Michael Sarrazin) is so handsome that Victor describes him as "beautiful". Victor teaches the Creature basic social skills, and even dresses him up and takes him to the opera. But Victor soon finds out that the Creature is slowly reverting back to its once-dead form. The Creature's fine features are now deteriorating, and Victor now no longer wants to have anything to do with him. The Doctor apparently can't help his creation, and he can't put it out of it's misery. The saddened and hurt Creature throws himself off of a cliff into the sea....but he survives.

Part Two has the Creature wandering in a forest and coming upon an old blind man (Ralph Richardson). The Creature befriends the blind man, and pays visits to the man's cottage, but manages to avoid being seen by the blind man's beautiful granddaughter Agatha (Jane Seymour) and her husband. The Creature observes Agatha from afar, and falls in love with her. When the Creature is revealed to Agatha and her husband, tragedy ensues--the husband, treating the Creature as a monster, attacks him and is killed, and Agatha, while fleeing in terror, is run over by a horse-drawn carriage. The heartbroken Creature takes Agatha's body to the old house where he was created by Victor. Dr. Polidori has taken over the place, and he coerces the now married Victor into helping create a new creature using Agatha's body. This new experiment, called Prima (also played by Seymour), is alluring, but heartless. Victor and Polidori try to destroy the Creature, but fail--and the being barges in on Prima's debut party into society and literally rips her head from her body. In the aftermath Victor and Elizabeth flee on a ship to America--but Polidori and the Creature are on board as well. The enraged Creature kills Polidori and causes the crew to leave on lifeboats, leaving only himself, Victor, and Elizabeth on the ship. The Creature steers the vessel north to the Arctic, where he and his creator meet their fate.

At three hours long, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY presents the viewer with a lot of material. It's a sprawling story that needs more than one viewing to appreciate it. It incorporates several elements from the Shelley novel, but also many incidents from the early classic Frankenstein films made by Universal in the 1930s. Michael Sarrazin is a magnificent Creature, and you can't help feel sorry for him. Frankenstein is proud of him when he is first "born", but he treats him like a dress-up doll. As soon as the Creature begins to lose his looks, Victor basically abandons him (you don't need to know that the producer and screenwriters of this film were gay to figure out the subtext here). Sarrazin is helped out by a excellent makeup design from Harry Frampton.

Leonard Whiting doesn't get much of a chance to shine as Victor Frankenstein, but that's not the actor's fault. As I see it, Victor in this story comes off as weak and indecisive. Whether he is working with Henry Clerval or Polidori, Victor definitely acts like the junior partner. His scientific accomplishments seem more the result of luck and his associates' knowledge than of his own doing. (To be fair, it has to be said that the Dr. Frankenstein portrayed in Mary Shelley's novel isn't the most dynamic guy in the world either.) Instead of a brilliant and ground-breaking scientist. Victor in this tale is a young man way over his head. Even his wife Elizabeth has more gumption than he does (Nicola Pagett is very good in what is usually a boring role). Whiting as Victor reminds me of those handsome young actors who played the assistants to Peter Cushing's Baron in the Hammer Frankenstein films.






The fantastic triple cover for LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #38, by Mark Maddox





James Mason as Polidori dominates every scene he is in--he makes every line of dialogue he utters sound like a droll witticism. (When there is a scene with just Victor and Polidori, poor Leonard Whiting doesn't stand a chance.) Polidori's adventures with Prima are intriguing, but they also put Victor and the Creature off to the sidelines. Jane Seymour makes a huge impression as the strangely beguiling Prima, and her destruction at the hands of the Creature is without doubt the most thrilling moment of the story. (In the DVD I have of the film, there's nothing gory about it, but I'm still amazed this was allowed to air on early 1970s American network TV.)

Hunt Stromberg Jr. went out of his way to cast several star cameos--among the names he gathered were Agnes Moorehead, Michael Wilding, and John Gielgud. It's great to watch these legends at work, but as with the Prima scenes, the cameos have a tendency to distract from the main characters.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY has many outstanding individual moments. The creation sequences are unlike any shown in a Frankenstein film. The Creature comes to life from solar power--no dark & stormy night here. Prima seems to be created through Oriental mysticism instead of science--this sequence is highlighted by colorful chemicals and lava lamp-type effects. The climax of the story is superb, featuring a violent storm and finally an ice-caked ship stuck in the eerie frozen wastes of the Arctic (the production design here is magnificent). Director Jack Smight does a fine job, and he's immeasurably helped by crack cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson. Producer Stromberg wanted a bigger name than Smight as director, but that probably wouldn't have been to his liking--as Sam Irvin makes very clear, Hunt Stromberg Jr. was the main creative force behind the production.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is an unusual film, and a intriguing one. I think the project would have been better served with a shorter, more concise script--or maybe it needed to be longer to adequately explore all the many pathways the story takes. (A shorter version of the film was released overseas as a theatrical feature--I've never seen it but it has been generally dismissed by critics.) Edward R. Hamilton is still selling it at $5, and it is worth adding to any classic horror film fan's collection. It is also worth picking up a copy of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #38 and delving into Sam Irvin's authoritative account of the making of the film--an account which is plenty thrilling and adventurous itself.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE OUTLAWS IS COMING







Before Adam West became Batman, he appeared in a number of roles that were typical for a young, handsome actor in the early 1960s. West showed up in several TV shows and played many second male lead parts in theatrical films. One of his most notable performances in his pre-Batman period has him alongside the Three Stooges in THE OUTLAWS IS COMING, released in 1965.

THE OUTLAWS IS COMING is a Western spoof and the very last theatrical feature in which the Three Stooges starred in. West plays Kenneth Cabot, who works for a nature magazine in 1871 Boston. Cabot is sent out West to discover why so many buffalo are being killed. Cabot is a timid sort, so the Stooges are sent along to accompany him. (The fact that the Stooges have to help Cabot out tells you all you need to know about the man's personality.)

The destruction of the buffalo is tied to a plot to cause various Indian tribes to go on the warpath, thus allowing Western desperadoes to take advantage of the situation. The meek Cabot is named Sheriff of Casper, Wyoming as a joke, but with the help of the Stooges and the gorgeous Annie Oakley (Nancy Kovack), the bad guys are stopped and the Indians are pacified.

THE OUTLAWS IS COMING is one of the better full-length Stooges films made during the team's Joe DeRita period. (In my opinion, the best Three Stooges theatrical feature is THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES.) The full-length Stooges films can in no way match the manic intensity of the team's short subject work in the 1930s and 1940s. The shorts only averaged about 15 to 18 minutes long, and characterization and plot took a back seat to wild gags and slapstick. The full-length features had to have more of a story, and other characters that the Stooges could interact with. The violent slapstick was toned down, due to the fact that the Stooges weren't getting any younger (Moe was in his late 60s), and parents groups were complaining over the Stooges' physicality being showcased for kids on TV throughout America. The addition of Joe DeRita as Curly Joe also affected how the films turned out, since DeRita wasn't anywhere near as outlandish as Curly or Shemp.

Norman Maurer (who happened to be Moe's son-in-law) was the producer & director of THE OUTLAWS IS COMING. Maurer also worked on the story with long-time Stooges gagman Elwood Ullman. The two men brought more satire and visual humor to OUTLAWS instead of the usual slapping and punching. The movie makes references to such early 1960s pop-culture items as the Beatles, GUNSMOKE, and THE MUSIC MAN. The group of bad guys called in to deal with Adam West's character includes such Western legends as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Jesse James. The movie puts forth the idea that these paragons of the frontier turned to good because the Stooges forced them to! (There's no real climatic shootout because the Stooges have stuck the gunslingers' pistols inside their holsters with industrial-strength glue.) The Western legends were played in this film by a group of TV hosts that played Stooges shorts on programs across the U.S., a canny bit of cross promotion.




The Three Stooges with Adam West



There's still some slapstick in THE OUTLAWS IS COMING--the Stooges have their own misadventures with the industrial-strength glue, and yes, there is a pie fight at the end. The Stooges do dress up as Indians, and while some may look upon the scenes with the tribes as politically incorrect, they're basically harmless (Henry Gibson gets a lot of laughs as a hip-talking brave).

As for Adam West, he's stuck playing a milquetoast, but it has to be said that he does it very well. At least his Cabot doesn't come off as so pathetic that the audience dismisses him. West can't help but be upstaged by the Three Stooges, but what really hurts him is that his leading lady winds up stealing the film. Nancy Kovack makes a huge impression as the brash Annie Oakley. Not only is she a stunning woman, she brings a lot of sass and personality to the role. It is Annie Oakley who secretly does all of Cabot's "trick" shooting--the relationship between Annie and Cabot resembles that between Bob Hope and Jane Russell in the PALEFACE movies. Annie also has a crush on Cabot (though why she would is a mystery). Whenever Nancy Kovack shows up in movies like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS or DIARY OF A MADMAN, you can't take your eyes off her (at least I can't). She deserves more attention from Old Movie Weirdos.




Nancy Kovack as Annie Oakley



THE OUTLAWS IS COMING is a nice little Western spoof. Stooges fans will appreciate it the most. It doesn't have the amount of big laughs that a typical Stooges short would have, but it is pleasantly amusing. Usually the "normal" leading man & lady of a full-length Three Stooges feature wind up being forgettable, but that's not the case here. Adam West and Nancy Kovack give THE OUTLAWS IS COMING an extra special ingredient.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

WONDER WOMAN










Does WONDER WOMAN "save" the DC Cinematic Universe? Let's say it's a step in the right direction. It's a good movie, but in my opinion, not a great one. The main character is more impressive than the film itself.

Gal Gadot is without doubt the best thing concerning WONDER WOMAN. I'll even go as far to say that she gives the most appealing and charismatic portrayal of a major DC Comics heroic character since Christopher Reeve in the very first SUPERMAN. After years and years of seeing DC movies featuring actors who were unsuited for their roles (Christian Bale, Ryan Reynolds, Henry Cavill, etc.), it's refreshing to have one of the company's most legendary figures capably filled on the big screen.

Unfortunately Gadot has to share a lot of screen time with Chris Pine (who at least isn't as annoying as he is as the fake Captain Kirk). One of the things that hurts WONDER WOMAN is that it is an origin story, and I've always felt that those tales hold the characters back. We see Amazon Princess Diana's childhood on the secret island of Themyscira, and her abrupt introduction to the outside world of men through American intelligence agent Steve Trevor (Pine). Diana enters the "normal" world right at the climax of World War I, where evil Germans (of course) are hatching a scheme to release a super gas and change the tide of the conflict, while killing millions.

The real origins of the comic book Wonder Woman came out of World War II. I assume that the World War I angle was chosen for the film so people wouldn't be reminded of the first Chris Evans CAPTAIN AMERICA movie. But you can't help but be reminded of that Marvel feature while viewing WONDER WOMAN. The character of Thor also came to my mind--both Thor and Wonder Woman are the children of gods, and both of them struggle to deal with the quirks and foibles of humankind. The setting of WWI is very unusual for a summer geek flick--the story even showcases a real historical person in the figure of German General Erich Ludendorff. (This made me wonder--if Ludendorff has any living relatives or descendants, will they start showing up at Comic Cons and rake in appearance fees??)

Director Patty Jenkins does an okay job, but the movie has a lot in common with most 21st Century action features--a desaturated color scheme, a two hour-plus running time, and fight scenes dominated by MATRIX-style slow-motion movements. Once again, we have a group of villains who are underwhelming--and yes, the main bad guy gets to shoot out tendrils of energy from his fingertips at the end. I have to reiterate that I liked the movie--it's just that I've seen so many of these things that they all start to run together. When you've sat through dozens of scenes of CGI bodies flying up in the air and hitting the pavement over and over again, the effect of all that begins to wane.

I'm well aware of the fact that many folks out there want WONDER WOMAN to succeed in the hope that it will further certain causes and issues they care about. When I write a post about a particular film, I'm not interested in being politically correct--I'm attempting to articulate how I personally felt about the film. WONDER WOMAN is a good movie, especially from a DC standpoint, but I wouldn't call it one of the greatest comic book films ever made. The character of Wonder Woman--and Gal Gadot--deserves to be in a film that doesn't have the baggage of an origin story or an unnecessary leading man.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Adam West (1928-2017)










The passing of Adam West marks the passing of a childhood hero of mine. It was as a very young kid that I first started watching the 1960s BATMAN TV show. I was absolutely mesmerized by it. I hadn't begun reading comic books yet, but I didn't need to--the BATMAN TV show was a real-life comic book. To this day the show is still more accurate to the DC Comics Batman books than any of the later theatrical films. It may come off as campy--but it is the world of Batman.

Untold numbers of folks, like me, were introduced to the character of Batman through the TV show. As a little kid, I took the show seriously. I would even get scared at the end of the episodes when Batman was stuck in one of those crazy death traps. Adam West was Batman. He wasn't campy or silly to me--he was what I thought a good guy should be. To my eight-year old self, he was the ultimate superhero. Whenever West showed up on another TV show playing a "normal" character, I would watch that show, hoping that somehow he'd "turn" into Batman--and wind up being invariably disappointed when he didn't.

Later on I would watch BATMAN with a different point of view. I still didn't look upon it as a joke, however. The show was a major part of my childhood, and a major influence on what I appreciated in filmed entertainment. As an actor Adam West went through some hard times in the 1980s and 1990s, but I always looked upon him with respect and admiration.

Thankfully, as Geek Culture began to take hold in the 21st Century, West went through something of a rehabilitation. Several people who grew up watching the Adam West Batman began to make TV shows and films themselves, and the actor became sort of a father figure to the Geek community. West carved out another pop-culture role for himself by doing voice work on the animated series FAMILY GUY, and the long-overdue release of the BATMAN TV show on home video gave him plenty of chances to shine in the spotlight. West became accepted as a legend, an icon...and to many people, the true Batman.

I had one chance to meet Adam West--he was scheduled to appear at a comic con a few years ago in Chicago that I attended, but he was unable to come due to illness. (Kind of like my non-meeting of Carrie Fisher last year.) I never did get to meet him, and I certainly didn't know him personally--but I still felt I had a connection with him. That may sound silly to some, but there are performers, who, due to the circumstances and the timing of when we see them, make a profound impact on our lives. Adam West made a profound impact on mine. I happened to view the BATMAN TV show at the right age (just like STAR WARS came out at the exact proper moment for me). Adam West's portrayal of Batman shaped my perspective on what a true hero should be.

Today all over social media tributes to Adam West are pouring in. How many of us can say that we will leave such a positive effect when we leave this world? BATMAN may have been a campy TV show, but the fact that Adam West has inspired so many warm feelings from so many people is extraordinary. There have been many other actors who have played Batman. Adam West was Batman.


Monday, June 5, 2017

The Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon: BANDOLERO!










Dean Martin was one of the greatest all-around entertainers of the late 20th Century. He was a success on the big screen, on television, and of course as a recording artist. To pick just one of his films to write a blog post about it kind of limits the man. Nevertheless that's what I'm about to do with my look at the 1968 Western BANDOLERO! from 20th Century Fox.

Why BANDOLERO!? Simple. When I think of Dean Martin's movie career, I think of his Westerns. For me Dean's greatest film role was as Dude in the iconic RIO BRAVO. Martin went on to appear in several more Westerns--he has more titles on his resume in that genre than many stars more associated with it. Most of Martin's Western characterizations are basically variations on Dude--men who have a bad reputation, are a bit untrustworthy, and are somewhat cynical. Yet they also have a roguish charm, and they can be depended on when the chips are down. Martin's cowboys also were not exactly on the right side of the law most of the time, yet they never came off as evil.

Those descriptions fit Dee Bishop, the character Dean plays in BANDOLERO! The film starts out with Dee and his gang attempting to rob a bank in Val Verde, Texas, in 1867. There's nothing unusual in a Western film beginning with a bank robbery--but this one is foiled by straight-arrow sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy). Dee and his gang are thrown in jail, and they are all sentenced to hang due to a Val Verde citizen being killed during the holdup. The citizen is a rich rancher named Stoner, and his gorgeous Mexican wife Maria (Raquel Welch) is now the wealthiest woman in the territory.

Dee's brother Mace (James Stewart) hears about the capture of the Bishop gang, and happens upon the hangman heading to Val Verde to perform the executions. Mace disguises as the hangman, and helps Dee and his gang escape. As the sheriff and most of the town's men chase after Dee, Mace takes advantage of the situation to rob the bank. Dee and the gang kidnap Maria and head into Mexico, where they are joined by Mace. The sheriff, with a posse, continues the pursuit--he has a huge crush on Maria, and hopes that now she's a widow he will have a chance to be with her.

As the two groups travel farther south, they venture into bandolero territory--a desolate region dominated by bandits who will kill anyone for anything. Dee and his group stop at a deserted Mexican town, where Sheriff Johnson catches up with them. Before the sheriff can take them back, bandits attack, and the motley groups have to join forces and fight for their lives.

BANDOLERO! was directed by action veteran Andrew V. McLaglen (son of famed character actor Victor). McLaglen spent a lot of time on the film sets of John Ford, and he was heavily influenced by the great filmmaker. McLaglen's work is nowhere near the level of Ford's, but he did know how to make an entertaining tale. McLaglen did share one thing with Ford--he knew how to use a great location, and BANDOLERO! has several (the movie was shot on different locations in Texas, Arizona, and Utah). The film isn't a great Western, but it is a very good one--it's the type of movie you watch on a lazy rainy Saturday afternoon. After the opening bank robbery, the film is dominated by James Stewart's humorous play-acting as the hangman. One starts to think that the story is going to be rather lighthearted--but as the characters get farther into Mexico, things get darker. McLaglen had a very traditional, understated directorial style, and at times the movie seems to just amble along. But what makes it noteworthy is the fantastic cast. Any movie with names like Stewart, Martin, and Welch is going to be worth seeing, but there's a great supporting group here as well, with names such as Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, and Harry Carey Jr.

Believe it or not, it is George Kennedy who steals the film (his sheriff has as much screen time as the three leads). Kennedy plays an upright, honest, "ordinary guy" who pines for Maria, and risks his life and those of his men to get her back, despite the fact he probably realizes he has no chance with her. Stewart and Martin have the showiest roles as the Bishop brothers, but it is Kennedy who the audience remembers after the film is over.

Raquel Welch doesn't have all that much to do here--her future Westerns 100 RIFLES and HANNIE CAULDER would give her a bigger showcase. Her Maria isn't all that broken up over her husband's death--she explains to Mace that Stoner literally bought her from her poor Mexican family. She also tells another character in the film that she was a whore at the age of 13 and her family of 12 never went hungry. Apparently this background is one of the reasons why Maria starts falling for Dee during the last part of the film. This relationship doesn't really have enough time to develop, and is one of the weak points of the movie.

James Stewart is wonderful as always. Stewart had worked with McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett several times before, and one gets the feeling McLaglen let Stewart do whatever he wanted acting-wise. The idea of Stewart and Martin being brothers is about as far-fetched as Martin and John Wayne being brothers in THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, but the two men work well together. Their brother-to-brother conversations are major highlights of the story, the most memorable one being their discussion on how many Indians there are in Montana. It's too bad Stewart and Martin never made another film together, especially another Western.





Great Japanese poster for BANDOLERO!


And as far Dino himself? Many have said that Dean Martin did nothing but play Dean Martin, and there is some truth to that. But Martin did have an incredible natural performing ability, and a performer has to use whatever gifts he or she has. Dean Martin had the knack of appearing as if he wasn't really acting, or singing, or being witty--he just seemed to do it, and be totally smooth while doing it. What makes Martin's Dee a little bit different than most of his other Western roles is that Dee has a bit of an edge to him. His usual cockiness is toned down here--after all, Dee is on the run for most of the story. Dee is also a man who realizes that he's wasted most of his life, especially when he comes across his older brother. Throughout the film Mace constantly tries to get Dee to change his ways, and Martin's pained expression shows that Mace has made his point. I wouldn't say that this is a performance of great psychological depth, but Martin does more than enough to reveal that Dee is haunted by his actions. By the way, there's a great on-set story about BANDOLERO!. At one point Raquel Welch went up to James Stewart and Dean Martin and started asking about her character's motivation. After the discussion, as Welch walked away, Dean turned to Jimmy and asked, "What's she talkin' about??"

It's interesting that Dean Martin was so successful in the Western genre. It would seem that a man who was the personification of 1960s playboy cool might look ridiculous on a horse, but Martin never seems out of place in any of his Westerns, which is more than can be said for his good friend Frank Sinatra. Martin may have looked like he wasn't doing much of anything, but he always gave the audience its money's worth. BANDOLERO! isn't one of the greatest Westerns ever, and it has a surprisingly downbeat ending, but you'll always have a good time watching it--just like you'll have a good time experiencing anything Dean Martin put his considerable talents to.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

THE MAD MONSTER











It's low-budget old monster movie time again, courtesy of Producers Releasing Corporation, better known as PRC. The film is THE MAD MONSTER (1942), starring the great George Zucco. It also features Glenn Strange, best remembered for his portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster in Universal chillers of the mid-1940s. In THE MAD MONSTER, Strange plays a werewolf--and a takeoff on Lon Chaney Jr's Lennie character to boot.

Many Poverty Row horrors waste a lot of running time before getting interesting, but THE MAD MONSTER starts off at full throttle. In the first ten minutes of the story, we see Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco) inject the blood of a wolf into his country-bumpkin handyman Petro (Glenn Strange). Petro soon turns into a wolf man (the transformation sequence is very impressive for a low budget movie such as this), and Dr. Cameron becomes exultant. Zucco's eyes nearly pop out of his head as he starts railing about how his "scientific breakthrough" will create an army of wolf men that no enemy country will have the power to stop! Yes, it appears Dr. Cameron is just trying to do his part for the war effort! (Did Cameron ever try to tell FDR about his plans?) Cameron then really lets loose, beginning an argument with a group of scientific colleagues that have dismissed his theories. The thing is, only Cameron and the Wolf-Petro are in the basement laboratory--the wacky Doc is debating with foes who are not actually there (they are presented on-screen as transparent figments of Cameron's imagination). This opening is the best sequence in the film.

Because he has been disgraced by the scientific community, Cameron has rented an old house out in the country to continue his experiments. With him is his daughter Lenora (played by Anne Nagel, who already had Scream Queen status due to her appearances in Universal's BLACK FRIDAY and MAN MADE MONSTER). Lenora is mystified at why her father has moved to this desolate spot, and at what he is exactly doing (considering that George Zucco is her father, she ought to know the guy is up to no good). Cameron continues to inject the unknowing Petro with wolf's blood, and the half-witted he-wolf soon begins to transform on his own. One night while wondering about the nearby swamps, Wolf-Petro sneaks into a family's shack and kills their young daughter. This alerts the authorities, and gets the attention of Lenora's boyfriend Tom, who is a snoopy reporter (every Poverty Row horror has to have at least one).

Cameron has more important things on his mind, such as a plan to use Petro to wipe out his scientific rivals once and for all. The Doctor puts his nefarious scheme in motion, but Tom and the authorities start getting more suspicious. Lenora finds her way into her father's secret laboratory and comes across Wolf-Petro. A raging storm outside lets loose a bolt of lightning which strikes the house and causes a fire (divine retribution, perhaps?). The now-uncontrollable Petro attacks and kills Cameron as the house burns down around them. Tom and Lenora escape to safety.

THE MAD MONSTER was obviously influenced by Universal's hit THE WOLF MAN, which was still in theaters as THE MAD MONSTER was being produced. But I also think another Universal film, MAN MADE MONSTER, was a huge influence as well. In that one, Anne Nagel was also the leading lady, and she felt sorry for Lon Chaney Jr's none-too-bright Dynamo Dan, who in turn had a crush on her. A similar situation arises in THE MAD MONSTER--Nagel is kind to Petro, who happens to be sweet on her (it needs to be pointed out that Petro makes Dynamo Dan look like a nuclear scientist). Throw in the fact that when Petro is "normal", he acts very much like Lon Jr's interpretation of Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN, one could say that THE MAD MONSTER owes a great deal to Lon Chaney Jr's then-recent burst of stardom.

There's only one full-out wolf transformation sequence in the entire film--the one in the opening sequence. I'm sure this was done because of the budget, but director Sam Newfield does come up with some novel ways to present the wolf version of Petro. At one point Petro is sitting down, while wearing a wide-brimmed hat. He appears to doze off, and when he raises his head, he's fully transformed, the hat having hidden the need to use special effects. In another sequence, Petro is riding in a car driven by one of Dr. Cameron's scientific rivals, and when the man happens to glance over, Petro is transformed and ready to strike. The makeup used on Glenn Strange was created by Harry Ross, and of course it is not in the same class as Jack Pierce's iconic Wolf Man creations for Universal. Ross's makeup doesn't hold up very well the more you get a good look at it, but I think it does work within the context of the film.

There are a number of elements which make THE MAD MONSTER a cut above the usual low-budget chiller made during this period. One is the atmospheric mist-shrouded swamp settings in which the wolfish Petro rambles about--usually in a Poverty Row horror the story takes place in the interior of a big house, and that's nearly all we see. Petro's killing of a young child is disturbingly unusual, especially for a film of this vintage. Director Newfield handles it rather effectively--we see the young girl playing with a ball in her bedroom, while in the background the transformed Petro sneaks in through the window. We next see the ball bouncing into another room, then the girl's mother running into the bedroom and screaming. We are never shown the actual killing, or the girl's body--but that makes the act more unexpected and haunting.

George Zucco was one of the greatest movie mad scientists of all time, and he gives his role in THE MAD MONSTER way more intensity and passion than it probably deserves. Listening to Zucco's silken, authoritative voice spout out recriminations against his scientific rivals is a monster movie geek's treat. Without the brilliant presence of someone like George Zucco, these types of films would be hard to get through. Was an actor of his talent and stature wasting his time on such material as this? Maybe, but it is films like THE MAD MONSTER that have made Zucco a cult legend, while many of his contemporaries who appeared in more supposedly prestigious fare are almost forgotten. (By the way, Zucco sports a toupee in this movie.)

Anne Nagel, as mentioned, was on familiar ground here. There really isn't much to the character of Lenora--she's attractive and has a pleasant personality, but she doesn't get much to do. One thing that surprised me was the fact that she doesn't put on a nightgown and get carried off by Petro! Johnny Downs actually gets top billing as Tom, even though he doesn't show up until about a half-hour into the film. (It's a shame that Zucco didn't get top billing.) As I've stated several times before, the "David Manners" type of role in a classic horror film is the worst one to play for any actor. Downs isn't as annoying as most B movie reporters, and here, that's a problem--if he were as obnoxious as say, Wallace Ford, he'd at least be memorable.

Seeing Glenn Strange play a wolf man before his turn as the Frankenstein Monster should be on any old movie buff's bucket list. I think Strange overdoes it a bit as "normal" Petro (you wonder whether he was trying to be funny or just pathetic). He certainly has the bulk to be a movie monster, and he does look creepy when he's stalking through the mists. As Wolf-Petro he does have a tendency to say "AAARRHHH" a lot, which makes you wonder if he's playing a wolf man or a pirate. The tragedy angle of poor, put-upon Petro, especially in his relationship with Lenora, could have been developed more.

I have to say that THE MAD MONSTER ranks up among the best of the Poverty Row horrors made in the 1930s-1940s. I'd even venture to state that it's more impressive than some of Universal's lesser chillers made during the same period. It has a great mad doctor performance by George Zucco, some atmospheric scenes, and a few unusual & notable elements. I'd love to see it be restored and released on home video by a company such as Kino or Olive, with commentary by either Greg Mank or Tom Weaver (most of the information in this post was gleaned from the works of both of those men).

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE BLACK HOLE










Spending most of this month writing posts about STAR WARS has made me think about films and TV shows that were inspired by George Lucas' blockbuster. Many of these productions are almost forgotten today, and none of them achieved anywhere near the success that STAR WARS did. As a young geeky kid in the late 1970s, I tried seeking them out. I was so obsessed with STAR WARS, I was willing to sit through almost anything that had spaceships and robots in it.

This means I watched TV shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY. I lost interest in both of them after their first seasons--the only thing I really remember about BUCK ROGERS is Erin Gray's skintight outfits. I even watched a show called QUARK, which was something of a science-fiction spoof and starred Richard Benjamin. I certainly didn't understand it, but it did have spaceships and robots.

It took me a few years to get around to most of the big-screen STAR WARS rip-offs, due to the fact that my parents almost never took me to see movies in a theater. (Their stance on cinema attendance was, "Why pay to go see it when it'll be shown on TV eventually??") When I did finally see these sci-fi spectacular wannabes, I would invariably be disappointed. Many have commented on how simple George Lucas' tale supposedly is--but that apparent simplicity seemed to have been beyond the reach of the many producers, directors, and writers who tried to vainly cash in on it.

Due to the complex nature of their productions, it took a while for most of the STAR WARS wannabes to make it to the theaters. 1979 was the big year for the revitalized big-budget Hollywood science-fiction film, what with titles such as ALIEN, STAR TREK--THE MOTION PICTURE, and the Disney company's entry into the sweepstakes, THE BLACK HOLE. I tried watching THE BLACK HOLE on TV years ago, and I don't even think I finished it. I decided to view it again, and find out how it compares to STAR WARS today.

THE BLACK HOLE features a exploratory space vessel called the Palomino, which is heading back to Earth. The five-person crew comes across a (surprise) black hole, and a supposedly-lost spaceship called the Cyngus. The giant craft seems to have only one human survivor aboard--its commander, the brooding Dr. Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). The Doctor explains to the crew of the Palomino that he is determined to explore the black hole, and that he has also created several robots to run his ship. The crew of the Palomino, and their own "cute" robot, called Vincent, have their suspicions. The explorers find out that most of Reinhardt's robots are actually remnants of the original crew of the Cyngus. The explorers try to escape, but Reinhardt manages to send the Cyngus into the black hole.

THE BLACK HOLE is a very schizophrenic film. On one hand it tries to be a "serious" science-fiction story, what with Reinhardt's obsession with the black hole, and an ending that tries to emulate 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But this is a Disney film, after all, and the character that gets the biggest showcase in the story is good-guy robot Vincent. Vincent is short, squat, and cylindrical, like R2-D2, but he has a prissy English voice like C-3PO (courtesy of Roddy McDowall). Vincent also has a design that makes it look like it sports cartoonish eyes--which means that every time you see it, you think of a kids toy instead of a functioning mechanism. Later in the film we are introduced to an older version of Vincent's type called Bob, voiced by Slim Pickens. Bob is beat-up, dented, and his "eyes" look as if he's getting ready to cry--he appears even more ridiculous than Vincent does. Whatever serious intent THE BLACK HOLE tries to have goes out the window when these two are front & center--and they are in the film a majority of the time.

As for the human characters, they are even less interesting than the robots. The crew of the Palomino--the Captain (Robert Forster), first officer (Joseph Bottoms), two scientists (Anthony Perkins & Yvette Mimieux) and a journalist (Ernest Borgnine)--are totally interchangeable. You couldn't imagine any other actors in the main roles of the STAR WARS cast, but the leads in THE BLACK HOLE could be played by any other performer, no matter what the gender. We barely get to know anything about the main characters, and they are all given some rather generic dialogue. Yvette Mimieux's character gets a few details--she has a psychic link to Vincent (which is never explained), and we learn that her father served on the Cyngus. Both of these elements, however, never develop into much of anything. What's really sad is how the movies wastes two fine character actors in Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine. One would expect that two old pros like them would get a number of chances to ham it up in a movie like this, but Perkins plays his role so vacantly that I expected he would turn out to be a robot. As for Borgnine, I assumed that he would be the "ordinary Joe" guy, the one that the audience could relate to, the one that would be trading barbs with the robots--but he doesn't do any of those things, he's just kind of there.

Maximilian Schell easily has the showiest role as Dr. Reinhardt. From the very first time we meet him, you know he's the bad guy--he's got wild hair, a wild beard, and he's overtly "foreign" (at least in the typical movie sense). Like a lot of things in this movie, Schell's determination to enter the black hole is never really explained. Schell's Reinhardt is very reminiscent of Captain Nemo (which is fitting for a Disney film), and I have to say he also reminded me of Dr. Morbius from FORBIDDEN PLANET. In that movie Dr. Morbius had Robby the Robot, and in THE BLACK HOLE Dr. Reinhardt has a very Darth Vader-like robot called Maximilian (I assume the name was just a coincidence). Maximilian is made out to be a bad dude, but he winds up being a dud (he gets defeated by the "cute" Vincent!). Reinhardt also has a squad of robot soldiers who also bear a slight resemblance to Vader. Unfortunately they shoot like Imperial Stormtroopers (wouldn't a robot soldier have perfect aim?) and their movements are very clunky--they move like a five year old kid trying to imitate a robot. The idea that Reinhardt has turned his former crew into robot zombies is an intriguing one, but it isn't taken advantage of enough (was Disney afraid that this plot aspect might be too scary?).

The real star of THE BLACK HOLE is the Cyngus (see picture above), a magnificently designed ship that seems to have a limitless interior. The special effects in this film are first rate--Disney apparently wanted to hire Industrial Light & Magic to handle the FX work, but they wound up starting their own effects house instead. Visually, THE BLACK HOLE is stunning--but the same cannot be said for the characters or the story. The film does have an outstanding music score from the legendary composer John Barry. While doing research on THE BLACK HOLE I came across the opinion that the movie should be watched with just sound effects and music only--and I would have to agree with that.

THE BLACK HOLE was Disney's most expensive movie up till that time, and it was also the first PG rated film from the company. When it came out I remember it had a huge publicity campaign behind it. The movie was not a smash at the box office and from today's perspective it's easy to see why. Instead of a fun thrill ride like STAR WARS, the movie has a coldness to it, with stiff characters and a very ambiguous ending (I won't give it away for those who have not seen it,,,but when you do, you'll probably say "Huh??"). The mixture of esoteric science-fiction and goofy robots was a strange one. Take away the superb FX and John Barry's impressive music and one is left with the equivalent of a mediocre Star Trek episode. The movie does have a very small cult following, and there has even been talk of a remake. A film like THE BLACK HOLE just reminds me of how special the original STAR WARS was, and how the ingredients that made it special are not so easy to put together again.