Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: AMERICAN GOTHIC









I've extolled the virtues of Jonathan Rigby's book ENGLISH GOTHIC several times on this blog. Last year saw the release of EURO GOTHIC, and now Rigby's AMERICAN GOTHIC has been re-released in a revised and expanded hardcover edition from Signum Books.

The first edition of AMERICAN GOTHIC came out about ten years ago in softcover. That version covered American horror films from the silent era to roughly 1956. The new edition adds a brand new chapter going up to 1959, right before the release of HOUSE OF USHER and PSYCHO. The book has the same clean efficient design as ENGLISH GOTHIC and EURO GOTHIC.

In the new AMERICAN GOTHIC Rigby singles out 111 different films for special coverage, and he briefly examines hundreds more. The volume is filled with black & white stills from the features discussed, and there are two sections of color illustrations. The book doesn't just deal with the famous usual suspects--many low-budget (and no-budget) independent films are included.

If you are any sort of a classic horror film fan, you've no doubt seen or read about most of the movies in AMERICAN GOTHIC dozens of times. Despite that, Rigby still is able to bring insightful analysis and dry humor to the subject. The author makes his points clearly, and avoids excessive plot synopsis. Rigby looks at the films chronologically, which allows him to place the titles in the context and times in which they were made.

The main thing that a reader takes away from AMERICAN GOTHIC is how much early 20th Century "old dark house"/mystery novels and theatrical plays influenced the development of the American horror film--a far greater influence than one might suspect.

I do wish that Rigby had continued the book into the 1960s, and reviewed the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe film series. But there's still 384 pages here of entertaining and informative reading. The best compliment I can give to any film book is that reading it made me want to watch the titles discussed all over again--and AMERICAN GOTHIC certainly does that.

For those folks serious in learning about the history of horror films, any volume of Rigby's "Gothic Trilogy"--or better yet, all three--is essential.




Jonathan Rigby's Gothic Trilogy

Sunday, November 12, 2017

RETURN OF THE APE MAN









RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944) was the last of the infamous "Monogram Nine", a group of very low-budget horror films from that Poverty Row studio starring Bela Lugosi. It has nothing to do with THE APE MAN (1943), which was also released by Monogram and starred Bela. Both movies do have a number of similarities--the main one being that they are as goofy as all get out. RETURN OF THE APE MAN has just received an official home video release from Olive Films.

The story starts out with two Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and John Gilmore (John Carradine) thawing out a tramp who has been in frozen suspended animation for four months. The poor fellow wakes up with no memory of the experience, and since he seems hale and hearty, the scientists immediately send him on his way, with Gilmore giving him five bucks for his trouble! (The professors don't even worry about keeping a tab on the homeless guy to see if there's any aftereffects--for all they know, the guy could have dropped dead five minutes after he left the laboratory.) Dexter (we never learn his first name) is now convinced that a human being can be kept in frozen preserve for years and years. Dexter decides to go to the Arctic in an attempt to find a frozen prehistoric being, and Gilmore, despite his misgivings, goes along.

In a very tacky looking fake "Arctic" indoor set (augmented by stock footage), the scientists do find a frozen man, and they take him back to America. Lugosi proceeds to thaw him out (with the use of a blowtorch), and the ancient fellow is alive! Dexter next plans to use brain surgery--and a modern man's brain--to advance the prehistoric man's intelligence. Dexter sets his sights on the fiancee of Gilmore's niece, and he manages to get the young man into his house and put him under, but Gilmore stops him at the very last moment before surgery. Gilmore isn't smart enough to tell the authorities about what's going on, and sure enough the "ape man" escapes from Dexter's Laboratory (sorry DeeDee) and creates havoc. Dexter convinces Gilmore to help him destroy the beast--but it's all a ruse to get Gilmore's brain in the creature, which does happen. The "ape man" is now advanced--well, advanced enough to talk like the MGM version of Tarzan. Of course, Dexter can't control him, and the part-Gilmore escapes again, killing Gilmore's wife and kidnapping his niece, leading to a fiery climax.

As usual, merely describing the plot of a Bela Lugosi/Monogram picture in no way does it proper justice. All the events I've described take place in about an hour's running time, but due to Phil Rosen's rather generic direction, it seems longer. Both Lugosi and Carradine here seem a bit more reserved than usual. Bela's Prof. Dexter is a perpetually grumpy sort of fellow--the only time we get to see the expected wicked gleam in Bela's eye is when he finds out his brain surgery on the ape man is a success (if you want to call it that). Carradine's Gilmore is so high-minded that when he's captured by Lugosi he almost begs the man to use him as a guinea pig so no one else gets hurt. The two actors do an okay job here, but I expected a little more verve out of them (I'm sure though that it was hard for any performer to get fired up over acting in a movie like this).

If you have seen the photo above, you'll notice that the great character actor George Zucco gets third billing in this film. That was because he was supposed to have played the Ape Man. Zucco did not play the role--Frank Moran did. Some say that when the creature is first thawed out and is lying on a table in Dexter's Laboratory (again, DeeDee) that it is Zucco, but it's hard to tell. Most monster movie experts say that Zucco left the project saying he was "ill"--others say that Zucco was so angry at his role he simply walked away from the movie. There is one still that does show Zucco as the Ape Man, so he did actually appear on set--but how much time he spent on the film, and what, if anything, was shot with him remains a mystery. Even esteemed classic horror historians Greg Mank and Tom Weaver don't really know the exact details of Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN. One thing is for sure--Zucco does get billing on the film's credits. I hope he at least got paid for that! Monogram did a lot of crazy things--but casting the erudite and very British Zucco as a half-witted brutish caveman takes the cake. My own personal theory is that because Dexter gave the ape man part of Gilmore's brain, the creature's intelligence was supposed to develop over the movie's running time, and Zucco's version of the creature would have had more dialogue and more scenes which required expressive acting. But we'll never know.




Just about all that remains of George Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN
(Zucco is in the middle, flaked by Bela Lugosi and John Carradine)




Frank Moran plays the thawed-out throwback as a typical movie caveman--he's shaggy, unkempt, and has limited vocabulary. The movie does try to show that something of Gilmore is striving to come out of the creature after Dexter's operation. The Ape Man does return to Gilmore's home, and once there he begins to play "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano (earlier it had been established that was Gilmore's favorite piece of music). When the Ape Gilmore encounters his wife, he seems to try and make some sort of contact with her, but then winds up strangling the woman. (Did Gilmore have some issues with his wife?) This idea of a victim of a forced brain transplant going back to his home and not being recognized by a mystified wife would be examined far much better in Hammer's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. The very beginning of RETURN OF THE APE MAN, with has a sequence involving a man being restored to life after being frozen, also reminds one of a later Hammer film: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. For all its inherent goofiness, RETURN OF THE APE MAN does present a few interesting themes that later movies would take better advantage of.

What makes RETURN OF THE APE MAN really goofy is its climax, which has the prehistoric man running around with Gilmore's niece slung over his shoulder like a sack of laundry. (The Ape Man's interest in the pretty young niece makes one wonder if Gilmore had repressed feelings for the girl.) The niece is played by Judith Gibson, who would later change her stage name to Teala Loring, and her fiancee is played by Michael Ames, who would later change his name to Tod Andrews. (In his fantastic book POVERTY ROW HORRORS!, Tom Weaver jokes that it was RETURN OF THE APE MAN that caused the actors to assume different monikers.) Lugosi winds up getting killed off ten minutes before the film ends, which is a waste....while the Ape Man is cornered in Dexter's...er, lab and is burned to death. (The cops on the scene talk about how they hope the fire department takes their time getting to the blaze.)

Olive Films has released RETURN OF THE APE MAN on Blu-ray and DVD. I bought the DVD to save a few bucks...this is, after all, a low-budget film in full-frame black and white. The visual quality on this Olive presentation is acceptable, nothing more. While some sequences look a bit better than others, for most of the time the image is very soft. I doubt that the Blu-ray version of this film would look that much better. As usual with Olive Films, there are no extras whatsoever.

I wouldn't rank RETURN OF THE APE MAN as even one of the best Lugosi/Monogram pictures, but it is nice to see it get an official home video release. Any film with Bela, John Carradine, and a crackpot caveman can't be all bad.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

How Much Ice Cream Can You Eat? (A Few Thoughts On Entertainment Franchises)





This post is the direct result of the announcement that Disney is going to produce another Star Wars trilogy, one that will deal with new characters and a new story line.

I'm sure most of you are thinking, "You love Star Wars, don't you Dan? Isn't this great??" Yeah, I love Star Wars. But my definition of Star Wars is the Sacred Original Trilogy. I loved ROGUE ONE, and the CLONE WARS and REBELS animated TV shows are very good. But how much Star Wars do we really need?

To me, Star Wars is supposed to be special--like ice cream. You wouldn't want to eat ice cream three times a day, every single day. THE LAST JEDI will come out this year, and the Han Solo film will come out next year, and in 2019 the final part of the second trilogy is expected to be released. This just announced trilogy is scheduled to begin in 2020...which means we are probably going to have new Star Wars movies every year in the immediate future.

The films in the original Star Wars trilogy were released three years apart--and as a kid that seemed an interminable time. But it made you anticipate and appreciate the movies even more. It made the movies seem more special.

I fully understand why Disney is cranking out as much Star Wars product as possible. I have no problem with people trying to make money off of creative endeavors--that's something I want to do myself someday. But with all these titles coming out, it's easy to foresee the watering-down of the Star Wars Universe.

Just because you slap the Star Wars label onto something doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good. You can make a rom-com, and put Bib Fortuna in it for five minutes, and technically you can call that a Star Wars film. As we have learned from the prequels, finding out more information about the Star Wars Universe doesn't guarantee to increase our enjoyment of it.

My friend Will McKinley (not the 25th President of the United States) has warned of "Star Wars Fatigue". Is it possible to be tired of Star Wars?? Maybe...but I think it has to do more with "Franchise Fatigue" than Star Wars in particular.

We live in an age of Geek Culture. One of the most important elements of Geek Culture is that you don't just watch filmed entertainment--you obsess over it, you totally envelope yourself in it, you wallow in the minutiae. Being a Geek requires a lot of time and effort...and money.

Think about all the big-time entertainment franchises that are active today. Star Wars, Star Trek, The Walking Dead, the Marvel movies, the DC movies, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Stranger Things...and I've just scratched the surface. There's so much Geek stuff out there that you have to be independently wealthy (and have a lot of time on your hands) to keep up with it all.

The result is that when one of these many Geek Franchise titles comes out, one feels almost obligated to see it. Nearly everything in entertainment is now part of some expanded universe, or part of some vast connection. The idea of an original stand-alone movie, one that does not have well-known characters, and isn't connected with any other medium, seems almost quaint.

I can't tell you how many times over the past few years someone has told me, "Dan, you need to see this movie/TV show because it's the kind of thing you're supposed to like." When you watch something because you're supposed to see it--you're putting it on the same level as getting the oil changed in your car or doing the laundry. The movies and TV shows that I love the most are the ones I discovered on my own. Today it's almost impossible to stumble upon a movie or a TV show, because we are inundated with so much media on everything.

I know I sound like a grouchy uptight white guy (maybe because I am one), but the anticipation of looking forward to the release of a major genre film has lessened considerably for me over the years. It seems that they come out almost every other week now. And when they do come out, they inevitably do not live up to all the internet hype.

When I was a kid, there wasn't a lot of big-time science-fiction movies, or fantasy films, or comic book pictures. In other words, you very rarely got ice cream. Now, you can eat ice cream 24/7, if that's what you want to do.


Monday, November 6, 2017

BARRY LYNDON On Criterion Blu-ray









Criterion has pulled out all the stops for their Blu-ray release of Stanley Kubrick's 1975 historical epic BARRY LYNDON. An entire extra disc is needed for all of the extras.

BARRY LYNDON has never seemed to accumulate the kudos that more renowned Kubrick films have garnered over the years--films such as DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and THE SHINING. It seems that appreciation for it has started to grow recently, however. BARRY LYNDON is one of the most sumptuously photographed movies ever made--you can literally freeze frame the disc at any point and wind up with an image that could be hung inside a portrait gallery. There were no sets used during the making of BARRY LYNDON, and the result is that the movie avoids the typical Hollywood history aspects of cinema set in the past. I'm no expert on late 18th Century Europe, but if I was able to go back to that time period and find out that it didn't look or feel like BARRY LYNDON, I'd be extremely disappointed.

If there is one particular thing about BARRY LYNDON that does not seem to jibe, it may be Ryan O'Neal's performance as the title character. When I first saw BARRY LYNDON I was convinced that O'Neal was miscast--that he was too American, too modern to portray an 18th Century opportunistic Irishman. I wondered how the movie would have been if someone who was more of an "actor's actor" had played the role....Malcolm McDowell, perhaps?

After seeing the movie a number of times since then I am now of the opinion that O'Neal was exactly what Kubrick wanted. O'Neal sticks out like a sore thumb...and that's one of the points of the film. No matter what situation Barry finds himself in, no matter how he is able to take advantage of his surroundings, the man simply does not fit in. He's an eternal outsider. He's also not very likable either, which doesn't make this film attractive for a mainstream audience (especially if you consider that it is three hours long). Most movie historical epics deal with famous (or infamous) real-life characters, or fictional characters who are involved in great events or deeds. Barry does take part in the Seven Year's War, but that's really a minor incident in his story. Kubrick isn't interested in big exciting moments here--he's more concerned with observing Barry and whoever or whatever he comes across. Some may find BARRY LYNDON to be cold and remote, but that could be said about every Stanley Kubrick production.

Nearly every aspect of BARRY LYNDON is explored on the extras disc in this Criterion Blu-ray--photography, production design, costumes, music, editing, sound, etc. Watching all these extras only made me want to know even more about the film. Criterion also provides a 42-page booklet which has an essay on the film by Geoffrey O'Brien and reprints two different articles on the film's visuals from AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER magazine.

Criterion presents BARRY LYNDON in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, and in my opinion it looks even better than the Warners Blu-ray of the film that was released a few years ago. Two soundtracks are provided--mono and an alternate 5.1 surround mix.

Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest--and most meticulous--filmmakers of all time. Every single second of BARRY LYNDON reinforces that. Criterion has come out with editions of a number of Kubrick's films, and since next year is the 50th anniversary of 2001, I can't help but hope that the company will do the ultimate release of that classic.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER





Not that long ago I wrote a blog post on the 1969 Hammer Sci-fi film MOON ZERO TWO, since it was featured in the latest issue of Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine. Another film was also featured in that issue--TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the very last Hammer horror film made in the 20th Century.

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was released in 1976, way after the English Gothic horror boom had ended. The movie was one of many attempts by Hammer head Michael Carreras to change the company's direction and make it more relevant to the changing tastes of film viewers. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER had a very torturous and convoluted production history, which is definitively chronicled in David Taylor's article in LSOH #39. I won't go into the various details of what led up to the film, but considering the state of Hammer at the time, it's a minor miracle the movie got made at all.

TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was based on a novel by English writer (and occult expert) Dennis Wheatley. Hammer had already adapted Wheatley's work before--their screen version of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT remains one of the company's best films--and they felt that using the author again might give them something akin to THE EXORCIST. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER isn't anywhere near the same level as THE EXORCIST, or THE OMEN, which came out later in 1976.





The front cover of LSOH #39, with artwork by Belle Dee


TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER has an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee), attempting to create an avatar from the combination of a demon baby and a young nun named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski). At least...I think that's what Rayner is trying to do--the priest's evil plan is somewhat perplexing. Catherine's father (Denholm Elliott) asks best-selling occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark) to help his daughter. Verney is a bit skeptical, but he soon comes to find out that he really is dealing with dangerous dark forces.

The story of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is formatted much like a mystery--the audience finds out what is going on right along with the characters, and very little is explained. Some may contend that this gives the film a sense of unease, but personally I find TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER confusing to watch. The movie has a very abrupt editing style--a number of sequences seem to be leading up to something, and then the movie switches over to another sequence entirely. One of the writers on the film was Christopher Wicking, a man who penned a number of hard-to-follow horror films...but in his article David Taylor reveals that another writer, Gerald Vaughn-Hughes, was on the set almost everyday rewriting scenes with director Peter Sykes. (Taylor also explains that the film has very little in common with the novel that it is supposedly based on.)

One big problem with TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is Richard Widmark. According to Taylor's article, the past-his-prime Hollywood star wasn't enthusiastic about making the film, and he didn't get along with most of the cast & crew. Watching the movie you can't help but notice how forlorn and uninspired Widmark looks...and I don't think it has anything to do with his character's feelings on battling Satanic evil. If the nominal lead of the film acts as if he doesn't want to be there...why should the audience?

Christopher Lee, as expected, is the best thing about the film. He's absolutely chilling as Father Michael...but instead of ranting and raving, he spends most of the story with a satisfied smile on his face, as if he's in a diabolic state of grace. Richard Widmark may have been the bigger mainstream name, but Lee was the real star here. Denholm Elliott is very good as Catherine's tormented father.

As for Nastassja Kinski, as Catherine....she's one of the main reasons it is hard for me to appreciate this film. It's not that her performance is bad, it's just...if you go by the most recognized date on the internet, Kinski was only 14 years old during the production of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. Kinski not only is present during a Satanic orgy in the movie, she also has a full-frontal nude scene. Kinski's supposed age is one of the many unpleasant things in this movie. I understand that the movie is supposed to be unpleasant--it has to do with Satanism, after all. But when it comes to horror films, I'm more drawn to Saturday afternoon creature features, or Gothic tales set in a European never-neverland. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is a contemporary film, and it's not comfortable to see a scene involving a woman being strapped down while giving birth to a demon baby (and dying because of the experience).

And then there's the ending to TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. I won't give it away here, but it's rather anti-climatic...so much so, that you're liable to exclaim, "That's it???" One thing the ending does do, it brings down the entire history of 20th Century Hammer theatrical horror with a whimper instead of a bang.

There are a few Hammer fans who have come to appreciate TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. For myself, I found reading David Taylor's article about the making of the movie was more entertaining than actually watching it. I don't believe that TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER killed off Hammer Films--I think the company was basically doomed no matter what they did. Director Peter Sykes tried to bring some atmosphere to it, and I do have to point out that Paul Glass' music is compelling, but even Christopher Lee can't overcome a confusing and mystifying script.






Monday, October 30, 2017

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)--Restored, And On Blu-ray









I've been looking forward to the Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of the newly restored THE OLD DARK HOUSE, and now that I've viewed it, I can say that it lives up to all my expectations. It is a magnificent restoration, and I'm not exaggerating in saying that watching it is like seeing the film for the very first time.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE was produced by Universal in 1932 and directed by James Whale. For many years the film was almost unavailable, and even today it is rarely shown on TV or cable. Universal doesn't even consider the film to belong to its lineup of Monster Classics, and technically that's correct. THE OLD DARK HOUSE is not really a horror film--it's more of a bizarre satire on English eccentricity (despite the fact that the abode of the title is supposed to be located in Wales). Boris Karloff may get top billing, but he doesn't have all that many scenes as the brutish butler Morgan. The real stars of the film are Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as members of the Femm family, who are forced to allow a group of stranded travelers into their Old Dark House during a terrific storm. Thesiger and Moore give two of the most quixotic portrayals ever seen in a movie made during the Hollywood studio era, and they not only outshine Karloff, they manage to overwhelm such performers as Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton as well.

James Whale was probably the most idiosyncratic movie director to work in 1930s Hollywood, and his patented combination of camp & creepiness is given full rein in THE OLD DARK HOUSE. I realize that there are a few film buffs that can't stand Whale and his work, but he's one of my favorite filmmakers. THE OLD DARK HOUSE is outlandishly theatrical, and it is not built around Karloff, but it is one of the best unusual films ever made.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has been available on DVD from Kino, but the Cohen Blu-ray is miles ahead in visual quality. The increased sharpness brings out all sorts of detail--just check out the shimmer of Gloria Stuart's satin evening dress. We also get to see, more clearly than ever, Jack Pierce's make-up job on Boris Karloff. Most of Karloff's face here is covered in hair, but his character also looks to have been mauled by a ferocious cat. This Blu-ray makes one appreciate the atmospheric black & white cinematography of Arthur Edeson, and the production design of Charles D. Hall (the Old Dark House itself is as important a character as any member of the cast).

Most of the extras on this Blu-ray have been carried over from the Kino DVD--audio commentaries from Gloria Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis, and a short talk with director Curtis Harrington, who was instrumental in preserving the film. There is a new interview with Sara Karloff, daughter of Boris, in which THE OLD DARK HOUSE is barely discussed.

I was hoping that there would be an extra on this disc detailing the new restoration of THE OLD DARK HOUSE....and there isn't. But that's a minor quibble. Cohen's Blu-ray of THE OLD DARK HOUSE makes the film look as fantastic as the recent Universal HD releases of their most famous Monster Classics. That alone makes this release a worthy purchase.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

MOON ZERO TWO





Last weekend, I received the latest issue of Richard Klemensen's magnificent LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine. It has become a recent tradition of mine to write a blog post on the movies featured in each new issue of LSOH. Issue #39 has inside looks at two Hammer films: TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER and MOON ZERO TWO. I'll tackle MOON ZERO TWO first. It's one of Hammer's most unusual features.

MOON ZERO TWO was produced in 1969 and released in the U.S. in 1970. Hammer executives had high hopes for the project. They felt that the real-life Apollo 11 space mission would be a promotional coup for the movie, and with financial help from Warner Bros., far more money was spent on the production than the typical Hammer picture. The main idea behind MOON ZERO TWO was that it was supposed to be the first "Space Western".

The movie did not wind up being a success with either the public or the critics. The many books on the history of Hammer tend to be dismissive of MOON ZERO TWO, when they even bother to
mention the movie at all. Issue #39 of LSOH has a comprehensive article on the making of the film by Hammer expert Bruce Hallenbeck. Thankfully Bruce writes about the film objectively and fairly, and he gives it far more credit than most Hammer fanatics.

Justly or not. MOON ZERO TWO will always be compared with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. There's no way that MOON ZERO TWO can come close to Stanley Kubrick's epic vision--it didn't have the budget or the production time for that. MOON ZERO TWO is meant to be entertainment, and while I wouldn't rank it as among Hammer's best, it doesn't deserve to be included among the company's worst. What hurts MOON ZERO TWO is that it is an in-between movie--it's not wild enough to be an all-out fantastic adventure and it's not serious enough to be thought-provoking science-fiction.

The year is 2021. The Moon has now been colonized, and space pilot Bill Kemp (James Olson), the first man to land on Mars, is now reduced to salvaging space junk. Kemp is in danger of being not allowed to fly, due to the age and condition of his spaceship, the Moon Zero Two. Kemp receives an offer from a greedy millionaire named Hubbard (Warren Mitchell). Hubbard plans to capture an asteroid containing tons of sapphire and crash it on the Moon, an illegal endeavor. The millionaire promises Kemp a brand new ship if he takes part. At the same time, Kemp's help is also requested by the beautiful Clemantine (Catherina Von Schell), a woman who is searching for her missing brother. The brother was a miner working on the far side of the Moon. Hubbard's plans and the disappearance of Clemantine's brother are linked, and Kemp has to use his astronaut expertise to set things right.

MOON ZERO TWO may be billed as a Space Western, but I don't see it like that. Most of the supposed Western elements are incidental--there's a saloon-type bar, there's miners, a sort-of-sheriff, etc. Maybe if it had tried to be more like a Western it would have gotten more notoriety. The actors, and the soundtrack music, certainly don't have a Western flavor to them. James Olson is a good actor, but he seems more like a character player than a heroic leading man, which is what Kemp is supposed to be. At the time Hammer probably wouldn't have been able to get a famous young American actor, but they might have been able to get a American TV star of the period....say Adam West, or Robert Conrad? The role of Kemp needed someone with a bit more vitality. (By the way, James Olson would later go on to play Arnold Schwarzenegger's former military superior in COMMANDO.)

The Hammer Glamour element in MOON ZERO TWO is provided by Catherina Von Schell (who would later change her name to Catherine Schell and gain cult fame for her role in the TV series SPACE 1999), and Adrienne Corri. Schell at one point strips down to her space underwear, and Corri, as the Moon "sheriff", gets to wear a couple of outrageous costumes. The Moon City saloon-bar features a group of dancing girls, but their routines are not out of this world. Warren Mitchell does very well as Hubbard (he comes off as a minor version of a Bond villain), but the rest of the cast isn't all that memorable. You don't get the usual Hammer repertory group in MOON ZERO TWO...but there is a cameo by Michael Ripper (I think he was included just to convince people it really was a Hammer movie).

The production design of MOON ZERO TWO is sleek and futuristic...but it isn't outlandish enough to be unbelievable. The same can be said of the special effects. The moon base, the Moon Zero Two ship, the Moon buggies, the spacesuits, the asteroid...they all have a realistic and practical look and feel to them. Many of the FX artists who worked on MOON ZERO TWO also worked on 2001. This movie makes extensive use of model work, but that doesn't bother me--I think models have a texture and reality to them that most CGI can't match. The floating-in-space sequences use wires, of course...but since these were filmed against a black background it works. One has to consider the FX of MOON ZERO TWO in the context of when it was made, not against movies of today. If a viewer does that I feel one will have more appreciation of the film.

Michael Carreras, son of Hammer chief James Carreras, was the producer and screenwriter of the film, and the driving force behind the project. Michael Carreras was always trying to do something different with the Hammer movies he personally worked on, and he has to be given credit for that, even though many of his ideas might not have worked out properly. MOON ZERO TWO isn't boring--there's plenty here to keep one's interest--but it might have been better if the story had been a bit more dynamic. Many of the action scenes take place in zero gravity, and this has a tendency to slow things down. There's a fight in the saloon-bar which takes place in zero gravity, and while it's supposed to be a satire on the classic Western bar brawl, it doesn't play out well. Roy Ward Baker was the director of MOON ZERO TWO. Baker made some of Hammer's best films, such as QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, and he also made one of the company's worst (SCARS OF DRACULA). MOON ZERO TWO fits somewhere between great and terrible, and I wonder how much enthusiasm Baker had for doing it.

The most intriguing thing Michael Carreras' screenplay for this movie, in my opinion, is the idea that after colonization the Moon has become all about commerce and bureaucracy.  Science and exploration have taken a seat to big business and tourism. This is the best idea in MOON ZERO TWO--the idea that no matter how much progress we make in the future, the mundane, ordinary things of life we always be with us.

MOON ZERO TWO isn't classic Hammer Gothic horror, and it doesn't even have a classic Hammer cast, but it does have its moments. I've seen plenty of science-fiction movies that were far worse. MOON ZERO TWO is available on a Region 1 DVD with WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH on the same disc. If you are interested in more information in this movie, please check out Issue #39 of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS. Besides Bruce Hallenbeck's excellent article, there's a plethora of photos, artwork, and interviews concerning the production. Heck, if you have any interest at all in any aspect of Hammer Films, you should be reading every issue of LSOH no matter what.

Coming soon to this blog--a examination of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER.




Sunday, October 22, 2017

KILL, BABY...KILL! On Kino Blu-ray








2017 has been a very good year for legendary film fantasist Mario Bava. It has seen two magnificent Region A Blu-ray releases of his work--CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER and ERIK THE CONQUEROR. Now Kino has come out with Bava's 1966 excursion into the weirdly macabre: KILL, BABY...KILL!

Many Bava aficionados consider KILL, BABY...KILL! his best work. It certainly is one of his strangest films (and that's saying a lot). It's not as well known as, say, BLACK SUNDAY....I don't ever remember it being shown on TV when I was a kid. The first time I had actually seen it for myself was when I bought the first Anchor Bay Mario Bava DVD set about a decade ago.

Set in 1907, KILL, BABY...KILL! has a doctor (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) arriving at a remote dilapidated European village to perform an autopsy. The village has been beset by a number of strange deaths, and the cause is the ghost of a seven year old girl, the daughter of the reclusive Baroness Graps. The Baroness is using the spirit of her child to exact revenge on the villagers. The doctor is convinced that the whole thing is nonsense, but his investigations lead him to the morbid Villa Graps where he learns how naive his skepticism is.

I've stated before that the movies of Mario Bava need to seen instead of written about, and that definitely applies here. A cursory description of the plot of KILL, BABY...KILL! does not do it justice. The story isn't really important...it's the visual atmosphere that Bava conjures up. Most of this movie was filmed at an actual crumbling Italian village, at night, and Bava turns the place into a gigantic haunted house. If you're looking for a story that makes narrative sense, KILL, BABY...KILL! is not for you. Bava eschews straightforward plotting and instead plays with time & space itself, resulting in a tale that plays out like a bizarre dream.

KILL, BABY...KILL! has very little gore or violence, but it does have one of the creepiest ghosts in movie history. The baleful stare of this little phantom has more impact that any fake blood. Bava made the ghost even more unsettling by having a young boy play the role in drag! The director's decision to do this may not seem all that important, but it shows Bava's visual ingenuity.





The creepy ghost of KILL, BABY...KILL! 


Kino claims that its Blu-ray of KILL, BABY...KILL! features a print newly restored in 2K from 35mm elements. I have to say that the print does not look as colorful or as sharp as other recent Bava restorations...but it's probably the best version of the movie available. This is the English-language version of the movie (an Italian audio track with English subtitles is included). The main extra is a new audio commentary by Bava expert Tim Lucas. As usual, Lucas' talk is excellent, with encyclopedic detail on the production. A 2007 featurette has Bava's son Lamberto going back to the locations used for the movie. Lamberto Bava worked on the film as his father's assistant and he also recalls details of the shoot. There is also a short interview with one of the movie's stars, Erika Blanc. She looks back on the film with fondness (her stories about the boy who played the girl ghost are very amusing). A German title sequence for the film is included, which has alternate footage, and a international theatrical trailer and three American TV spots, which advertise the movie under one of its many alternate titles.

Mario Bava fans will certainly want to own this title on Blu-ray. KILL, BABY...KILL! is the ultimate example of Euro Gothic.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL








A couple years ago, I did a series of posts listing my top 100 movies of all time. When the list was completed, I was surprised to find out that three of the films on it were directed by John Sturges--THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GREAT ESCAPE, and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. Sturges gets almost no critical appreciation today--at least not in comparison with some of his contemporaries like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.

The work of John Sturges should get more attention. He made tough, dramatic, suspenseful films about determined and serious-minded characters. Sturges was an expert in using unique outdoor locations, and he was a master at using widescreen. All of Sturges' films have an exemplary visual style. He worked with many of the biggest screen stars of the 1950s and 1960s, and he never failed to get great performances out of them.

A John Sturges Western that doesn't seem to be all that well known is LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL, released in 1959 and produced by Hal Wallis for Paramount. The movie stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, and the story may remind some of HIGH NOON and 3:10 FROM YUMA.

Kirk Douglas plays Marshal Matt Morgan. At the beginning of the story Morgan's Native American wife is raped and killed by Rick Belden (Earl Holliman), the worthless son of cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). The elder Belden happens to be an old friend of Morgan's, which complicates matters...especially since the man happens to be the town boss of Gun Hill, which means that Morgan can expect no help when he travels to the town to bring in his wife's killer. Despite this, Morgan is determined to be on the 9 PM train out of Gun Hill, with the younger Belden in his custody. Morgan manages to capture Rick, and he takes refuge in the town hotel, surrounded by Craig's men. Whether or not Morgan is able to succeed makes for a taut and suspenseful climax.

I've always felt that the decade of the 1950s was the when the best Hollywood Westerns were made. These films were able to deal with social issues that movies set in contemporary times could not. LAST TRAIN ON GUN HILL tackles rape, murder, racism, and law & order, among other things. The assault and killing of Matt Morgan's wife takes place off-screen--all we heard is the woman's screams, which is unsettling enough. The fact that Morgan's wife was a Native American causes several people in the story to consider that the crime wasn't really all that serious. Morgan obviously hates Rick, but he doesn't just go ahead and kill him on his own--Morgan believes that as a U.S. Marshal he has a responsibility to bring the man in and have him go through the legal process. There's not a lot of gunplay or violence in LAST TRAIN TO GUN HILL--the dramatic tension between the characters is the main highlight. The best scene in the movie takes place in the hotel room where Morgan has Rick handcuffed to a bed. The Marshal tells his captive, in excruciating detail, exactly what happens to a man when he's hung. Kirk Douglas is darkly effective here--it's as if the Marshal's pent-up sadness and frustration is finally let loose. No one could do simmering anger like Kirk Douglas--but he still is able to show that Morgan is human enough to follow the letter of the law.

Anthony Quinn has the proper powerful screen presence to play Craig Belden. Belden and Morgan were great friends at one time, but the cattle baron's success since then seems to have changed him. Belden believes his power over the town of Gun Hill makes him (and his son) untouchable. Belden is a widower (the death of his wife probably has something to do with his present personality), but he does have a mistress named Linda (Carolyn Jones). Belden treats her as his personal property, and Linda winds up helping Morgan. Everyone thinks of Carolyn Jones as Morticia in THE ADDAMS FAMILY TV show, but she's excellent here as a woman who has had too many bad experiences. A young Earl Holliman plays Rick as a unlikable punk, but when you see him interact with his father you start to understand why he became that way.

LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL, is an exciting, atmospheric adult Western that wraps everything up in only 94 minutes. It's a movie that deserves more attention.








Wednesday, October 18, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049








I have to admit that when I first heard there was going to be a sequel to BLADE RUNNER, I groaned. Did we really need another years-after-the-original movie riding on the coattails of a famous brand name? I'm happy to say, however, that BLADE RUNNER 2049 exceeded my expectations.

This is going to be a difficult post to write, for the simple reason that divulging any part of the story line will be too much. All I should really tell you is that the film takes place 30 years after the events of BLADE RUNNER, and leave it at that. BLADE RUNNER 2049 presents the audience with a series of mysteries, and some of them are revealed, some not. It is a film that needs the viewer's strict attention, and it also requires the viewers to think about what they have seen. The movie asks questions about identity and reality, and like the best science-fiction, it uses the "future" to comment on what is happening in society right now.

The original BLADE RUNNER became a cult movie due mainly to its cinematography, production design, and complicated screenplay. BLADE RUNNER 2049 follows in this tradition. It builds and expands upon the world created for BLADE RUNNER instead of just imitating it. By creating a believable and intriguing society, BLADE RUNNER 2049 hearkens back to the great hardcore science-fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s.

I do have to mention that this film is nearly three hours long. I've spent a lot of time in the last few years complaining about the length of modern day movies, but in this case there's a legitimate reason for the running time. Director Dennis Villeneuve takes his time, establishing the surroundings of the characters instead of indulging in rapid fire editing. You can't blame Villeneuve for showing off the exquisite cinematography of Roger Deakins, one of the film's main strengths. (The film geek within me was happy to see that the name most bandied about in the pre-release internet buzz on this film was that of Deakins, instead of any of the actors.)

BLADE RUNNER 2049 needs to be seen on the big screen, and if you want to see it that way, you'd better hurry up--the movie has already been considered a bomb by the media. But it is also a movie that will probably best be appreciated with multiple viewings, much like its predecessor. I can understand why it is not a box-office hit--it's a moody, dark film, and it makes no concessions to a mainstream audience. There's so much more I'd like to write about this movie, but I want people to discover what's in it for themselves, and decide on their own what they think about it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Book Review: STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW










The latest title in the series of novelizations based on the Star Wars Universe is particularly noteworthy. STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW celebrates the 40th anniversary of the original film by bringing together 40 different stories featuring the background characters of the story.

The chapters, each written by different authors, are arranged in roughly the same chronological order as the events in the actual film. The result is that reading this book is like experiencing the film through a series of deleted or alternate scenes. It's a brilliantly creative idea, and I hope that in the future THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI get the same treatment.

Among the characters showcased are Captain Antilles of the Blockade Runner, the bartender of the Mos Eisley Cantina, and even the creature in the Death Star trash compactor. We find out what Bail Organa and his wife were doing during their last moments on Alderaan, and we learn what it was like to stand at attention during the medal ceremony at the Rebel base on the Yavin moon.

My favorite chapter concerns a report written by Admiral Motti on the "incident" between him and Darth Vader in the Death Star conference room. This chapter does have a satirical bent to it....but it does kind of make you see Motti's view of the situation.

There's a few names among the writers that stand out--actors Wil Wheaton and Ashley Eckstein, Marvel Comics writer Kieron Gillen, and Harley Quinn co-creator Paul Dini.

Your enjoyment of this book will be directly tied to how big a Star Wars fan you are. For someone like me, this volume is pure geek heroin. It also shows that a film as famous and as well-known as the original STAR WARS can still inspire artists to reveal new angles on it. Even if you have seen STAR WARS a hundred times, this book will make you want to watch it and think about it again.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: ISHIRO HONDA--A Life In Film, From Godzilla To Kurosawa








When I started becoming a film buff as a teenager in the 1980s, relevant information about the science-fiction & kaiju films produced by Japan's Toho Studios was almost non-existent. Whenever they were discussed in books and magazines, it was usually in a simplistic and derogatory manner. (I remember that one of those Golden Turkey books named Ishiro Honda as one of the worst directors of all time.) Of course back then the Japanese giant monster movies were only available in their edited, pan-and-scan American versions, which did the films no justice.

Thankfully, the 21st Century has seen nearly all of Toho's kaiju titles released on home video in their original, uncut, widescreen editions. Toho's science-fiction output has recently been given proper critical evaluation, and a welcome addition to that is a new biography by Japanese film experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. ISHIRO HONDA--A Life In Film, From Godzilla To Kurosawa is the definitive story of Godzilla's most famous director.

The book charts more than just Ishiro Honda's work on the Godzilla series. It details his early humble beginnings, his training in the Japanese film industry during the early 1930s, and the interruption of his career with service in the Imperial Army. The authors reveal that Honda was drafted three different times, and it's easy to discern from this biography that the man was very grateful to have survived the experience and gone on to make movies for a living.

After World War II Honda went back to work for Toho Studios as an assistant director, and he eventually got to direct films on his own. He was eventually assigned to a project that would become the very first Godzilla film in 1954, and the success of that would change Honda's life. It wasn't until the 1960s that Honda worked almost exclusively on science-fiction and kaiju films. Before then the director made all sorts of stories--war movies, gangster pictures...he even directed a biography of a famous Japanese baseball pitcher. The authors go out of their way to analyse these little-known parts of Honda's career.

This book portrays Honda as a quiet, unassuming man who was a hard-working professional. For most of his working life Honda was under contract to Toho (much like Hollywood directors were under contract to American studios during the 1930s and 40s), and while he might have inwardly been dismayed at some of the films he was given, he never allowed it to show in his work. The authors detail Honda's collaborations with famed Toho talents such as special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya and music composer Akira Ifukube. Many of Honda's family members and co-workers were interviewed for this biography, including actors Akira Takarada, Kenji Sahara, and Kumi Mizuno.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book deals with Honda's relationship with Akira Kurosawa. The two met while beginning to work in the Japanese film industry in the 1930s, and they had a lifelong friendship. In the later years of both men's lives Kurosawa asked Honda to be something of an assistant to him, and they worked together on legendary films such as KAGEMUSHA and RAN. The authors suggest that Honda may have had more input on Kurosawa's later work than is generally realized.

The book features a number of rare photos from Honda's career, and a complete Ishiro Honda filmography. The foreword is written by Martin Scorsese.

ISHIRO HONDA is a magnificent biography--vastly informative, objective, and respectful of its subject. I'm sure most prospective readers will be most interested in Honda's kaiju titles, but you don't have to be a Godzilla fan to enjoy this book. I believe that anyone interested in film & world history will appreciate it. The authors deserve kudos for defining Ishiro Honda as not just a guy who made giant monster movies, but a successful and accomplished filmmaker in his own right.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

THE LONG RIDERS On Kino Blu-ray











THE LONG RIDERS (1980) is one of the best Westerns made during the late 20th Century. It is another examination of the Jesse James-Cole Younger gang in post-Civil War Mid-America, but it is far more down-to-earth than the many other Hollywood tales about the group. What most remember about THE LONG RIDERS is that real-life brothers played the major roles--James & Stacy Keach as the James brothers, David, Keith, and Robert Carradine as the Youngers, Randy & Dennis Quaid as the Millers, and Nicholas & Christopher Guest as the Fords. While the casting is notable, it's more than just a gimmick. The prime movers behind this film getting made happened to be the Keach brothers, and it was their idea to have other acting siblings in the production.

THE LONG RIDERS was directed by Walter Hill, and he went out of his way to make the film not look like the typical American Western. In the extras on this Blu-ray, Hill states that the movie is actually a Midwestern, since it takes place mostly in Missouri. The members of the James-Younger gang had a farming background, and they were not cowboys. Most of the film was shot in Northern Georgia, and it has a green, pastoral look to it instead of a brown, desolate feel. Hill does not present the gang members as wronged Robin Hoods, or outright savages--he shows them as they are, and he doesn't try to explain or give some sort of reason for the gang's actions.

Even though James Keach as Jesse James is the nominal lead character, the movie is really an ensemble piece, and all the actors are given a chance to shine. You still feel that you don't get to know the members of the gang all that well (I think that may have been the director's intent). There's plenty of gunplay in THE LONG RIDERS, but Walter Hill, like his contemporaries Sam Peckinpah and John Milius, knew how to use action & violence for maximum impact, instead of today's directors who lay it on with a trowel. The climax, which features the gang's botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, is one of the best shoot-outs ever put on film. Instead of overwhelming the audience with action, Hill uses it at just the right time.

Special mention needs to be made of the music score by Ry Cooder--it is a score prized by soundtrack aficionados. Cooder's music is simple, but it is quirky, atmospheric and of the period. As soon as the movie starts and you hear Cooder's main theme, you know that this is not the usual Hollywood Western.

The packaging on this Kino Blu-ray claims that it is a brand new 4K restoration, and the transfer does look beautiful. There are two choices of audio--5.1 and 2.0, and both sound very robust. What really makes this Blu-ray impressive is the number of extras Kino has provided for it. There are so many  supplements, they are given an entire disc to themselves. There are brand new interviews with actors Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, James Keach, Stacy Keach, Randy Quaid, and Nicholas Guest. There are also new interviews with Walter Hill, Ry Cooder, and producer Tim Zinnemann. An hour-long documentary on the making of the film is included, along with an anatomy of the Northfield Raid sequence, and a short piece where Walter Hill discusses his relationship with Sam Peckinpah. There is also an audio commentary with Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell & Nathaniel Thompson (I have not listened to this yet). The interviews are not just the usual "I loved working on this project" fluff--they are all worthy of viewing, and Walter Hill's remarks in particular about the making of the film are very enlightening.

It's nice to see an underrated film like THE LONG RIDERS get a Criterion-like treatment on home video. I personally believe it is the best film about Jesse James ever made.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

THE LOST WORLD (1925) On Blu-ray From Flicker Alley








The 1925 silent movie THE LOST WORLD is one of the most important and influential fantastic films ever made. This adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's famed novel about the discovery of dinosaurs on a remote plateau near the Amazon set the template for almost all giant monster stories to follow. The original KING KONG, the GODZILLA movies, even modern films such as JURASSIC PARK were inspired by THE LOST WORLD. The basic story structure of THE LOST WORLD is still being used in productions to this day.

For several years, the only way one could view THE LOST WORLD was through a succession of poor quality public domain home video versions. This Blu-ray version, produced by Lobster and Blackhawk Films, uses nearly a dozen different elements to create what is the longest and most complete example of the film since its original release.

Because so many elements were used, the end result is not of pristine quality...but there is far more detail than on other releases, especially in the scenes featuring special effects pioneer Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation. And it is O'Brien's work that is the lead star of this movie. You can't watch THE LOST WORLD and judge it against 21st Century FX techniques--one has to place it in the context of the times, and realize that O'Brien's work was groundbreaking and extraordinary.

Not only has the film been restored visually, intertitles and tinting & toning have been restored as well. A brand new music score has been created for the Blu-ray by silent film composer Robert Israel, and it fits the story very well.

A beautifully designed 16-page booklet is included in the release. The booklet contains an article written by Serge Bromberg, and it goes into great detail on the how's and why's of the restoration. An excellent and insightful audio commentary features Nicolas Ciccone, and it is chock full of information on all aspects of THE LOST WORLD. Ciccone goes out of his way to give background on Conan Doyle's novel and how it compares to the movie.

Other extras include examples of O'Brien's stop-motion work for films before THE LOST WORLD, and there's deleted scenes from the film. There's also some footage from O'Brien's unfinished project CREATION, and a image gallery.

Releases from Flicker Alley are a bit more expensive than the usual Blu-ray, but this one is worth the price. It is simply an outstanding package, and it will more than likely wind up on my year-end Top 5 2017 Blu-rays post. I know many folks will not watch a silent film to save their lives, and those same people won't appreciate any type of vintage special effects--but most of the geek cinema today's audiences flock to is descended in some way from THE LOST WORLD.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

OSS 117: FIVE FILM COLLECTION







Kino Lorber's OSS 117: FIVE FILM COLLECTION set brings a series of Eurospy adventures to Region A Blu-ray for the very first time. The five movies in this set feature a character with the rather florid name of Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath. Despite the moniker, he's an American secret agent, code number OSS 117, created by French author Jean Bruce. Not only did OSS 117 make his literary debut before the first Ian Fleming James Bond novel, the character's first film was made before Bond's movie debut in DR. NO.

I had never seen these movies before, but I had read about them in an article a few years back in Tim Lucas' VIDEO WATCHDOG. I've seen a few Eurospy films, and I thought this might be a set worth having. After all, what is hard earned money for but to spend on obscure films the average person has never heard of?

The set presents five OSS 117 films from the 1960s spread over three discs. The first disc has two films starring Kerwin Mathews (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) as OSS 117: OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED and OSS 117: PANIC IN BANGKOK. Disc two has a pair of films starring Frederick Stafford (TOPAZ) as the secret agent. Disc three has OSS 117: DOUBLE AGENT, with John Gavin (PSYCHO) now playing the lead role. All the films are in French, with English subtitles. (I don't have a problem with subtitles, but this may dissuade some from buying the set.)

I would describe the movies as being "James Bond Lite". These productions are certainly not cheap--they were filmed around the world, using all sorts of remote and exotic locations. Just like 007, every woman OSS 117 happens to come into contact with is drop dead gorgeous, but any romantic entanglements are on a PG-13 type of level. The violence in these movies is PG-13 as well--there's a fair amount of action, but the films do not wallow in gore or unpleasantness. Surprisingly the OSS 117 movies feature more one-on-one fight scenes than they do major gunplay. In every movie OSS 117 has a knock-down drag-out fight with at least two or three different people, and these are staged very well--I would even say they are on the 007 level.

Many of the films actually anticipate future 007 productions in terms of locations, plot devices, etc. I'm not saying that someone who was involved in the Bond films ripped off the OSS 117 series--but the fact that there are so many similarities can't help but make one wonder.

What the OSS 117 films really lack when compared against the Bond series is the energetic pace of the 007 features. In the OSS 117 movies scenes have a tendency to drag on a bit too long, and dialogue sequences are far more prevalent. The OSS 117 films also all have jazzy-lounge type music scores, which I feel negate the suspense instead of add to it (There's no John Barry equivalent for OSS 117).

As for the actors who play OSS 117 in this set, there's not that much variation between them--they all come off as passable James Bond wannabes. If I had to make a choice among the actors, I'd pick Frederick Stafford, simply because he was in what I consider to be the best two movies in this set.

OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED (1963) has Kerwin Mathews sent to Corsica to investigate the death of a fellow agent. OSS 117 finds that the death has to do with a plot to undermine America's nuclear submarines. This film is the only one in the set that is in black & white, and it has a low-key, noir type of atmosphere to it--it kind of reminded me of a German Krimi film (especially with all jazz music in the background). This movie is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Mathews returns in OSS 117: PANIC IN BANGKOK (1964). The producers spent a lot more money on this one--it is in color and 2.35:1 widescreen, and OSS 117 spends most of his time in various Thailand locations, a decade before James Bond would in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. The plot focus here is on a sinister doctor who is developing a way to spread plague throughout the world. The ending has OSS 117 and his compatriots taking on the doctor's minions in a gun battle inside a old monastery. This movie is much better than OSS 117 IS UNLEASHED. I'll always think of Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad, but he did a very good job in his two OSS 117 outings (it would have been nice to hear his line readings, though).

Andre Hunebelle directed the first two films in the set, and he also helms OSS 117: MISSION FOR A KILLER (1965), which introduces Frederick Stafford as the secret agent. This is my favorite of the films, with OSS 117 traveling to Rio to find out who is behind the assassination of a number of world leaders. It has to do with a plant in the Amazon jungle that can force people to kill, and the evil group using it. There's several fine action scenes here, including a fight featuring a blowtorch, and a paratroop assault upon the evil group's base at the climax. This movie has a few things in common with MOONRAKER--the Rio setting, a fight inside an airplane, and the fact that in the Bond film Hugo Drax's scheme also involves Amazonian plants. This film is also in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen & color.

OSS 117: MISSION TO TOKYO (1966) predates James Bond's trip to Japan in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Michel Boisrond directs this one, which has OSS 117 trying to stop a another evil group from using miniature jet planes to destroy U.S. military installations. The secret agent fights a sumo wrestler and a man wielding a samurai sword, among other threats. MISSION TO TOKYO is in color and 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.

OSS 117: DOUBLE AGENT (1968) introduces John Gavin as OSS 117 (the story even uses the idea of plastic surgery to explain the agent's changed appearance). OSS 117 infiltrates a nefarious organization (known cleverly enough as..."The Organization") who supplies assassins for various operations around the world. The agent travels from Rome to the Middle East, and three actresses known to cult movie buffs are showcased here: Margaret Lee (CIRCUS OF FEAR), Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL), and Rosalbi Neri (LADY FRANKENSTEIN). The head of "The Organization" is played by Curd Jurgens, who would go on to be the main villain in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. This movie is okay, but it lacks the major action set-pieces of the earlier films. The disc cover lists the aspect ration for this film as 2.35:1, but it appears to be 1.85:1.

All the films in this set have excellent transfers. The only extras are three trailers located on disc three. (It would have been nice to have it least one commentary to discuss the OSS 117 character and the series in detail.) The back of the disc sleeve has a collection of stills and posters from the films.

I was pleasantly surprised by the OSS 117 set. These movies are not on the exact level of the 007 series, but they are not that far below it. If you've seen enough 1960s secret agent movies and TV shows you will be familiar with this material, but all the titles here are entertaining, and worth watching (and they all contain plenty of eye candy).

Thursday, September 28, 2017

CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER--The Comic Book











Titan Comics and Hammer Films have started a new comic book series based on the 1972 film CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER. For those not familiar with the movie, it tells of the adventures of a soldier who travels throughout 17th Century Europe seeking and destroying the undead. Written, produced, and directed by Brian Clemens, it is one of the best Hammer features from the company's early 1970s period.

Clemens once said in an interview that he felt Kronos was very much like a comic book hero, so it is fitting that the character is facing new adventures in this medium. The first issue begins with Kronos and his companions Professor Grost and Carla battling a vampire named Porphyr and his zombie horde. Kronos & Co. then travel to the village of Serechurch to face a new threat.

The comic was written by Dan Abnett, with art by Tom Mandrake. It's unrealistic to judge a comic series based on the very first issue, but I thought the story was more than satisfactory. The tone of this issue is a bit darker than the film--it also somewhat reminded me of the FLESH AND BLOOD series of graphic novels created by Robert Tinnell and Neil Vokes. Tom Mandrake's artwork is excellent, but his renderings of Kronos, Professor Grost, and Carla, who were played in the film by Horst Janson, John Cater, and Caroline Munro, have a vague resemblance to the actors instead of being perfect reproductions.

The one major difference between the comic book and the film is the character of Carla. In the movie Carla is a naive gypsy girl who Kronos takes along with him in his travels. The comic portrays Carla as having spent some time with the vampire hunter on his journeys, so now she herself is a dedicated and effective destroyer of the undead (she also has a far more impressive wardrobe than she did in the film). I have a feeling that this upgraded version of Carla was meant to bring a 21st Century strong female sensibility to the series. (The comic book Carla is still just as buxom as the typical Hammer leading lady, however.)

I have to admit that if I had not seen the alternate cover of the CAPTAIN KRONOS first issue (see above) when I walked into my local comic book shop, I probably wouldn't have purchased it. The picture is of course of Caroline Munro, and I'm sure some will point out that it's not even a photo from the CAPTAIN KRONOS movie--it's a publicity still from DRACULA A.D. 1972. But hey, the cover got me to buy the issue--so it did its job. (The first issue also has a couple other covers that feature traditional comic book art.) The issue also has a two-page spread detailing the origins of the Captain Kronos character, written by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. The alternate cover and the two-page spread are a canny way to get Hammer Film fans interested in the comic.

It will be interesting to see happens in future issues of the comic. The first issue reiterated that in Captain Kronos' world, there are several different types of vampires who have different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. This variety will be useful, since readers may tire of having the same characters kill vampires over and over again.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE




Today is the birthday of actress Martine Beswicke. Nearly every movie Martine appeared in has a cult status attached to it, and she herself holds a high place among fans of genre cinema. With her unique exotic looks, you couldn't confuse Martine for any other performer. She also exuded a sense of danger about her--you felt that she could beat the crap out of you if she had to. She certainly wasn't the girl next door, and while this might have helped her obtain particular roles, it also may have limited her choice of parts as well.

I've always felt that despite the many memorable productions she was attached to, Martine's abilities were never fully taken advantage of. She was in two different James Bond films--FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL--but her roles in them were almost glorified cameos. She should have been a Bond leading lady, or a main Bond villain--heck, I think would she have been great as James Bond. When I watch all the big-budget comic book/action spectaculars of today's cinema, I'm constantly recasting them in my mind with the actors who were in the classic horror and science-fiction movies that I love. I can't help but think, "What if Martine Beswicke had been the Black Widow? Or what if she had been Wonder Woman?" The mind reels at such an enticing prospect.

For my money the 1971 Hammer film DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE contains Martine Beswicke's best movie role. She's Sister Hyde, of course--the alter ego of Dr. Jekyll, played by Ralph Bates. DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE also happens to be one of the best Hammer productions from the early 1970s, a time when the company was undergoing major upheaval.




Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke as Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde



In late 1800s London, Dr. Henry Jekyll is obsessed with coming up with a universal cure for various diseases. Jekyll's friend, Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim), tells him that with all the testing and research that must be done to combat each individual disease, the doctor will be dead and buried by the time any real results happen. This bothers Jekyll so much that he shifts his researches into finding a way to prolong human life. Jekyll focuses on female hormones, since women live longer lives than men. He successfully changes a male fly's sex to female, and Jekyll eventually transforms himself into a female, but only for a short time. The doctor needs more female hormones to continue his experiments, but his "suppliers", who are none other than the notorious grave robbers Burke & Hare, are attacked by angry citizens. Jekyll starts killing prostitutes himself to obtain what he needs. Sister Hyde becomes more powerful each time she returns, and "she" complicates Jekyll's relationship with his upstairs neighbor Susan. Jekyll winds up being suspected of the Jack-the-Ripper like killings, and he tries to destroy the influence of Sister Hyde--but she winds up destroying him.

DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE was written by Brian Clemens, and produced by Clemens and Albert Fennell. The two had worked on the famed British TV show THE AVENGERS during its most memorable seasons, and this film has much of the sly, witty attitude of that TV program. Clemens' clever reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous tale goes beyond the typical Hammer formula. The writer integrates the legends of Burke & Hare and Jack the Ripper, but this factor doesn't seem contrived at all. The sexual aspects of the shift between Jekyll and Sister Hyde are portrayed subtly and effectively. There are violent murders here, but director Roy Ward Baker uses suggestion more than blood--DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE is nowhere near as gory as most other horror films made around the same time. Baker and cinematographer Norman Warwick use a number of unusual camera set-ups to bring visual variety to a movie that has very few sets.

The transformation between Jekyll and Sister Hyde is handled very simply, without the use of complicated special effects. Some critics of the film have complained about this, but I believe any available FX of the time would have not held up very well (besides, Hammer probably couldn't have afforded a major FX sequence of this nature). What is important isn't so much the transformation, but the difference between Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

Dr. Jekyll, in this story, comes off as a misanthrope, far more interested in his experiments than in the humanity he is supposedly trying to help. His best friend Professor Robertson even calls him "a remote sort of fellow". Ralph Bates was an excellent actor, but he may have been too good--all of the characters he played for Hammer were very unlikable, and Dr. Jekyll is no exception. Jekyll is indecisive and morose, and when he engages Susan into a discussion about the morality of doing harm to individuals in order to effect greater good for the masses, he appears to be begging for an excuse to kill prostitutes in order to further his experiments. It's very hard to feel sympathy for this Jekyll.

As for Sister Hyde, she's confident, determined, and assured. She definitely wears the pants in the family. When Sister Hyde goes out to "collect" female hormones, she strides about the fog-shrouded streets with her head held high, and she even chooses to wear a magnificent red dress--there's no hide in this Hyde. Martine Beswicke obviously has the showier role here, but she makes the most of it. She's sultry, sexy, and devious, and she commands one's attention whenever she's on the screen. Poor Jekyll winds up looking unpleasant and uninteresting compared to his "sister". Hyde even seduces upstairs neighbor Susan's brother Howard, making one of the most bizarre relationship triangles in movie history. Susan (for whatever reason) is taken with Jekyll, and constantly goes out of her way to attract his attention. Sister Hyde seems to regard Susan with a mixture of contempt and jealousy--there are all sorts of theories one can discern from this, and I'll leave it to the readers to come up with their own ideas on it. (It does have to be pointed out that Ralph Bates and Martine Beswicke do bear a certain resemblance to each other, as you can see in the picture above.)




Sister Hyde in all "her" glory


There's more to this movie than just a gimmicky double act, though. It has a different feel and tone from the usual Hammer product. We don't see the expected supporting players, such as the Michael Rippers, etc. Gerald Sim does a very fine job as Professor Robertson. The Professor is the antithesis of Jekyll--he's a man who enjoys a good time, and he's always dressed rather smartly, and he's a bit of a rogue. Considering Brian Clemens' background with THE AVENGERS, I can't help but see a bit of John Steed in the character of the Professor. Despite his charm, the Professor is serious in trying to stop the Ripper-like murders--but he winds up getting seduced and killed by Sister Hyde, who knows how exactly to deal with her "brother's" friend. David Whitaker's music score has a very un-Hammer like feel to it as well--it has a romantic lushness to it, and at times it even sounds jaunty.

The one problem I do have with DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE is the ending, which has Jekyll fleeing from the police and taking to the rooftops. Jekyll winds up hanging on the edge of a building, much like Jimmy Stewart at the beginning of VERTIGO. Jekyll begins to change into Sister Hyde, and he/she falls to the street below and is killed, with a face showing a grotesque combination of the doctor's two personalities. I personally would have preferred a more exciting climax...say Susan and Jekyll trying to have a personal moment and Sister Hyde bursting through and causing havoc. (Martine really should have been given a more notable exit.)

Nevertheless, DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE is one of the better Hammer movies from the latter days of the company. One wishes that Brian Clemens had been involved in more features for Hammer--the only other production he did for them was CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER, another highly entertaining and underrated film that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves.

One also wishes that Martine Beswicke had been involved in more features for Hammer as well. She held her own alongside Raquel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., and as for PREHISTORIC WOMEN/SLAVE GIRLS? Well....she looked spectacular as the Queen of the Amazons, but she didn't get to really do much in that movie. (The publicity stills of Martine for PREHISTORIC WOMEN are far more exciting than anything in the film.) Sister Hyde is from my viewpoint her signature role.

In the last few years Martine has become the immortal muse of my good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy. The two have collaborated on a series of music videos that must be seen to be believed (they can be accessed on Josh's YouTube page). In 2018 Martine is scheduled to appear in HOUSE OF THE GORGON, to be written & directed by Josh and produced by Mark Redfield.




Saturday, September 23, 2017

Suzan Farmer (1942-2017)









In the last twelve months three women associated with Hammer Films have passed away--Valerie Gaunt, Yvonne Monlaur, and Jennifer Daniel. Unfortunately another must be added to the list: Suzan Farmer. The English actress appeared in four films for the company--THE CRIMSON BLADE, THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES, DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK. She also starred in American-International's 1965 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation DIE, MONSTER, DIE!, with Boris Karloff and Nick Adams.

Suzan's genre roles were all basically similar--a pretty young girl menaced by strange and dark forces. These parts may not have been very substantial, but Farmer brought a fresh-faced innocence to them that made her a perfect damsel in distress. She was the subject of Christopher Lee's sinister designs in three different films, most memorably in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. The scene where Lee's Count tries to initiate Suzan's Diana Kent into the habits of the undead is a major Hammer highlight.

I've always had a fondness for DIE, MONSTER, DIE!, mostly because I first saw it on Svengoolie's show back in the 1980s (when Sven was known as the Son of Svengoolie). It's not a great film, but it's perfect example of a Saturday afternoon monster flick. In her other genre roles Farmer looked fantastic in period costume, but DIE, MONSTER, DIE! allowed her to wear a more normal, contemporary wardrobe. She plays something of the equivalent of a Marilyn Munster role, since she's the daughter of Boris Karloff and Freda Jackson (how did those two have an offspring that looked like Suzan?). Farmer's beauty and nice girl attitude made her stick out like a sore thumb among the dour surroundings of this movie.

Most of Farmer's acting career mostly consisted of appearances on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s (I don't think she would have fit in very well with the more explicit Hammer productions made in the early Seventies). She had stayed out of the public eye for a long time, but she did participate in an audio commentary for an Anchor Bay DVD of DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, along with her co-stars Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, and Francis Matthews. (The commentary is also available on the Millennium Blu-ray of DPOD.) Farmer was definitely the quietest one of the quartet, but she seemed to enjoy the experience.

I don't particularly relish writing these posts on the passing of Hammer performers--I hope this is the last one I have to do for a while. This does make me treasure even more the encounters I have had with some of the Hammer ladies over the years.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Trinity Twin Pack--Blu-ray Review








Hen's Tooth Video has released THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970) and TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME (1971) on Blu-ray as a twin pack set. These are two of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Spaghetti Westerns ever made.

Italian actors Mario Girotti and Carlo Pedersoli (better known under the names Terence Hill and Bud Spencer) had already been paired before in Euro Westerns, but it was the Trinity films that made them international stars. The blond Terence Hill, with his leading man looks, and the physically imposing Bud Spencer made a great team, and they would continue to make movies together into the 1990s. The writer and director of the Trinity films, Enzo Barboni (working under the name of E.B. Clucher) wanted to send up the Western format, and the movies were massively popular, especially in Europe. Many blame the Trinity films for starting the downward spiral of the Spaghetti Western, but the fact is that by the early 1970s the genre was already being hurt by over saturation of product.

Terence Hill plays ne'er-do-well Trinity, and Bud Spencer is his grumpy brother Bambino. In both movies the two men try to con and scavenge their way across the Old West, but their schemes fall flat as they wind up reluctantly coming to the aid of various folks instead. In THEY CALL ME TRINITY, Hill stumbles upon his brother posing as a sheriff in a backwater town. (The real sheriff was trying to bring Bambino in, but Bambino shot him and usurped the lawman's identity.) The brothers decide to help a group of peaceful religious settlers from being driven out by the town boss (played by Farley Granger, a long long way from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN).

TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME has the brothers visiting their parents (Harry Carey Jr. has a small role as the boys' Dad). The visit prods Bambino into trying to train Trinity as a "proper" criminal, but the duo become mistaken for a pair of federal agents, and they attempt to waylay the plans of a devious gun-runner.

The Trinity films have a legendary reputation, but I must admit that from my perspective, they don't hold up very well when viewed today. I find the movies more amusing than flat-out funny. Terence Hill does have huge screen presence, and while some might find his antics ingratiating, others may consider him exasperating. It's hard to get excited about a character whose main goal in life is to avoid any type of responsibility whatsoever. The main joke about Trinity is that while he's incredibly lazy, he has almost superhuman powers with a gun. Despite this the Trinity movies have very little gunplay (both films are rated G!). Most of the action, such as it is, involves the brothers getting into fistfights with numerous opponents. These fights are almost on a Three Stooges-type of level (the mountain-like Bambino beats up several men at once). I was actually more impressed with Bud Spencer than Hill--especially Spencer's Oliver Hardy-like reactions to all the events happening around him.

The style of the films are very much like the main characters themselves--they sort of meander along, without seeming to be in any of a hurry to get anywhere. Both movies have a running time of nearly two hours, and that's very long for material such as this. Enzo Barboni had been a cinematographer on a number of other Spaghetti Westerns, such as the original DJANGO, but for the Trinity films he leaves the camera on Hill and Spencer and lets them carry the load.

Hen's Tooth Video has put each of the two films in this set on its on disc. Each movie is presented in HD 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the transfers look fantastic. The audio on both films is in English (it sounds like it is the original English dubbing). There is not an Italian audio track on these discs, which will no doubt disappoint purists. Both discs feature a short photo gallery for each film. Both discs have an original trailer--the one for TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME is German. It's too bad that audio commentaries for the films were not included. The movies appear to be uncut--but when it comes to Euro Westerns, one can never be too sure.

The Trinity films are certainly not on the level of Sergio Leone--or Sergio Corbucci, or Sergio Sollima, for that matter--but Spaghetti Western fanatics will appreciate having official fine-looking Blu-ray versions of them.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

ERIK THE CONQUEROR On Arrow Blu-ray










Arrow Video delves once again into the work of the Italian Maestro of cinematic fantasy with their release of Mario Bava's 1961 Viking epic ERIK THE CONQUEROR.

A number of Viking adventure films were made in Europe during the 1960s, at the height of the sword & sandal genre known as peplum. Mario Bava had a great deal to do with the development of the peplum film due to his work on the original HERCULES movies, so ERIK THE CONQUEROR was more in accord to his stylistic tastes than one would initially assume. What at first glance this seems to be nothing more than a cheap imitation of the Kirk Douglas vehicle THE VIKINGS becomes a tale worthy of note thanks to Bava's visual talent. Tim Lucas calls ERIK THE CONQUEROR the director's most underrated film, and I'd have to agree with that assessment.

The story begins with a raid on a Viking settlement on the coast of England in the 8th Century. During the raid, the Viking king is killed, and his young sons Eron and Erik are split up--Eron is taken back to his homeland, and Erik is found and adopted by the English Queen Alice. Twenty years later, Eron (Cameron Mitchell) and Erik (George Ardisson) come into conflict with each other, with the added complication of a pair of beautiful vestal virgins, played by the Kessler sisters (German-born twins who were famous in Europe for their cabaret act). 

ERIK THE CONQUEROR has plenty of the action one would expect from the usual peplum film--the opening raid on the Viking village, a battle at sea, and a climatic attack on a English castle. What makes these sequences even more impressive is how little time and budget Bava had to make them. Bava was not just the director here, he was also the cinematographer and co-writer. His visual flair is imparted in every scene in the film, and the result is some truly outstanding widescreen compositions. I could give you several examples of how Bava brought this story up a notch by his staging and lighting, but the main one I will use is what he does with the Vikings' subterranean main hall. Bava turns it into a phantasmagorical realm set next to the roots of a giant tree--the set is more expressive and emotionally stimulating than most of the cast.

Arrow Video has released ERIK THE CONQUEROR on Region A Blu-ray with a brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original camera negative. ERIK THE CONQUEROR was released on DVD by Anchor Bay a few years ago, and I've always thought that version looked pretty good--but this Blu-ray blows it out of the water. This disc features rich, saturated colors and increased detail throughout the film. It's a stunning display, and a prime showcase for Bava's artistry.

This Blu-ray has Italian and English mono audio and newly translated English subtitles. Bava biographer Tim Lucas has revised his audio commentary that was presented on the Anchor Bay ERIK THE CONQUEROR DVD and it is featured here. Lucas does his typically excellent job, and he works in snippets of an interview he conducted with Cameron Mitchell (the entire interview is provided on the disc as a separate extra). A 24-page booklet is included, with a number of stills from the film and an essay on the production by Kat Ellinger. The author makes the case that Bava's forays into the peplum genre have very much in common with his more renowned horror films.

Another fine extra is a short featurette from Michael Mackenzie detailing the similarities between THE VIKINGS and ERIK THE CONQUEROR. The disc package features a reversible sleeve with art from Graham Humphreys--one side uses the Italian title of the film: GLI INVASORI.

I've highly complimented every disc I've bought from Arrow Video, and that is because they are deserving of such praise. ERIK THE CONQUEROR isn't BLACK SUNDAY, or PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, but this Blu-ray is a must-buy for anyone who admires the visual brilliance of Mario Bava.