Friday, April 28, 2017


Among the latest of Arrow Video's fantastic releases is the 1967 Euro Western DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN, starring Terence Hill as the title character.

The original DJANGO, directed by Sergio Corbucci, was such a success in Europe that dozens of films followed which used (or more accurately, ripped off) the Django name. DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN is somewhat of an "official" Django movie--Franco Nero, who first played the character, was going to reprise the role, but he left to appear in the film adaptation of CAMELOT. Nero was replaced by Italian actor Mario Girotti, who used the name Terence Hill. Hill would later become far better known as Trinity in a number of comedic Spaghetti Westerns. (I honestly didn't know anything about DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN before it was announced Arrow was putting it out on Blu-ray--so I was amazed to learn that Terence Hill had played two iconic characters of the Euro West.)

Terence Hill bore a resemblance to Franco Nero, and he wears basically the same type of costume Nero wore in the first DJANGO. Hill's DJANGO isn't as morose as Nero's, but the original DJANGO is one of the bleakest movies ever made. DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN has the character being set up and robbed by a ruthless politician's gang while accompanying a gold shipment. Django's wife is killed in the melee, and he's left for dead. (It's never made clear if the events of this film happen before or after the first DJANGO--it could essentially just be an early version of a reboot.)

Five years later Django is working as a hangman in the same territory. The men he is hired to execute have been set up by the same gang that attacked Django. Django fakes the executions, and uses the men he has saved from the gallows to take part in his revenge against those who have wronged him. The men in Django's new gang, however, are just as brutal and vicious as the people who set them up, and the usual Spaghetti Western double-dealings and back-stabbings ensue, with another gold shipment involved in the mix. Django does get to use his famous machine gun in the climax, which is fittingly enough set in a graveyard.

DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN isn't as violent as the original DJANGO (few films are), but it still has plenty of brutality. Django gets beaten and tortured (most Euro Western "heroes" do), and his gang spends plenty of time and energy bringing vengeance to others. Director Ferdinando Baldi does an okay job, but he's no Sergio Leone (or Corbucci, for that matter). DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN is not so much a great Spaghetti Western as it is a representative one. The one element it has that sticks out the most for me is Django's use of a gang--most leading characters in this genre are out-and-out loners. The fact that the gang causes him more trouble than they're worth shows that you can't trust anyone in a Euro Western (Django, of all people, should know this rule). Hill will forever be known for his lighthearted antics as Trinity, but he makes a very good "regular" action movie star. Horst Frank plays the politician behind everything, and he's nowhere near as outlandish as most Spaghetti Western villains. The movie does have a fine score by Gianfranco Reverberi.

Arrow Video has released DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN on Blu-ray in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image is a bit soft, and like a lot of other Spaghetti Westerns made during this period, the picture has a yellowish tint to it. It's doubtful, though, that this movie could look any better than Arrow's presentation. English and Italian soundtracks are provided in Mono, along with English subtitles. The main extra on the disc is a short interview with Euro Western expert Kevin Grant, who talks about the film and explains the history of the Django character. A very ragged-looking trailer is included, in which the film is named VIVA DJANGO. A 15-page booklet is included, which has an essay about the film's production history by film historian Howard Hughes, and stills from the movie. Arrow's release also has a DVD version of the movie. As usual with Arrow product, the title sleeve has reversible artwork.

DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN is not a great Western, or even a great Spaghetti Western, but it is entertaining and interesting for those who favor the genre. Seeing Terence Hill play Django before he played Trinity is at least worth a look for cult movie fans. Once again I have to commend Arrow Video for doing excellent work on a title that would usually be relegated to public domain purgatory.

Monday, April 24, 2017


Soon after his game-changing portrayal of Dracula in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, Christopher Lee played another vampire role--in an Italian comedy. Filmed in 1959 under the original title of TEMPI DURI PER I VAMPIRI, the movie was known in America as UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE.

For Christopher Lee fans, UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE is something of a revelation. Lee definitely isn't playing Dracula--the bloodsucker in this film has the florid name of Baron Roderigo de Braumfurten. But Lee's appearance in this film is almost exactly what he would look like in the many Dracula films he made for Hammer in the 1960s-1970s. Baron Roderigo has a red-lined cape, which Lee would have in the later Dracula films. Roderigo's hairstyle in also very much in line with what Lee's Dracula would sport. Roderigo is a bit paler and thinner than the Hammer version of Dracula, but for me he looks almost exactly like Lee did in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Roderigo also resembles Lee's Dracula in other ways. Many of Lee's facial reactions, his physical mannerisms, and his body language in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE would show up again in the Hammer Draculas. The way Roderigo shoves someone out of his way, the way he closes a door in haste, the way he reacts to a cross--all these actions will be familiar to anyone who has viewed Lee's "official" Dracula movies. Seeing Lee going through all these motions in this context is rather strange--it's like discovering a lost Hammer film.

UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE also anticipates the later Hammer Draculas in the way in which Lee is used. Baron Roderigo doesn't have a lot of screen time, and when he is not onscreen, his presence is sorely missed. Lee is the sole reason to watch UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE. There are some beautiful women present, including Susanne Loret, the hottie from ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, but the comedy aspect of the story is very tepid.

The movie begins with an atmospheric sequence in which a horse-driven hearse (much like the ones used in Hammer movies) rides through a forest resembling Black Park. But this isn't the 19th Century--the story quickly shifts to present-day Italy, where the forlorn Baron Oswaldo (Renato Rascel) has just sold his castle to a group that plans to turn it into a resort hotel. Oswaldo has to use the money from the sale to pay off back taxes, leaving him broke--so he becomes a lowly bellhop. Oswaldo soon receives a letter from a mysterious uncle, informing him of an upcoming visit. It's Baron Roderigo, who, unaware of the sale of the castle, plans to use it for his new home. Oswaldo quickly learns that his Uncle is a vampire, and attempts to ward him off, but he's bitten--and the milquetoast nephew starts biting every female in the castle, sending them into swoons of ecstasy. All is resolved in the climax--even Baron Roderigo gets a happy ending.

The biggest problem with UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE is that it just isn't all that funny (at least from my outlook). The version of this film I watched was dubbed in English, so maybe the comedy might have come across better in a subtitled cut, but I doubt it. Renato Rascel is very low-key as Oswaldo--a Lou Costello type would have worked better in the role. Rascel is so short, even the women in the film tower over him, so his vampiric state comes off as a kid dressing up for Halloween. (It doesn't help that the vampire Oswaldo kind of looks like Joe Pesci.) The comedy in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE is on the level of a 1960s TV sitcom, more silly than funny. During Rascel's antics, I kept waiting for Christopher Lee to show up again.

Christopher Lee and Renato Rascel

For what it's worth, Lee does play Roderigo straight, much in the way Bela Lugosi and Co. acted in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Due to his towering screen presence, Lee commands every scene he's in (not that he has much competition with the rest of the cast). Director Stefano Vanzina does give Lee some atmospheric moments. Oswaldo's castle was an actual location, and seeing Lee skulk about it in the night, instead of the usual Hammer sets, is a true highlight. Unfortunately, as in many of his European film appearances, Lee is dubbed in the English version by someone who uses a generic "spooky" voice backed by an echo chamber.

It would be nice to see an uncut restored version of UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE with subtitles. I don't think it would make the movie significantly better....but it would help. If you are a major Christopher Lee fan, and have not seen UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, you really need to. It qualifies almost as a "lost" Lee vampiric performance. It has many similarities with some of Lee's Hammer Draculas--too many scenes not relevant to the story, beautiful women to look at (if you're so inclined), and not enough Lee. It's not a great piece of work, but Lee made many films that were far worse.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Yvonne Monlaur (1939-2017)

I felt I just had to write a blog post on the passing of French actress Yvonne Monlaur. She played the role of Marianne Danielle in the Hammer Film Gothic masterpiece THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, one of my favorite movies of all time. She also appeared in two other famous classic horrors--CIRCUS OF HORRORS and another Hammer production, THE TERROR OF THE TONGS.

During the height of her career Monlaur was constantly compared to screen sex goddess Brigitte Bardot. In her three horror films, however, Monlaur projected a naive innocence--she was more a maiden in need of rescue. Her character in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is a sweet, trusting individual, a young girl so overwhelmed by the dark situations she experiences that she becomes easy prey for the handsome vampire Baron Meinster. The color cinematography of Jack Asher and the typically gorgeous Hammer costumes (nightgowns included) made Monlaur look spectacular. Director Terence Fisher made much use of Monlaur's beautifully expressive eyes (if there was any actress who could do a perfect wide-eyed horrified stare, it was Yvonne). Untold numbers of monster movie fans fell for Yvonne while watching BRIDES, and all of them wanted to see her saved by Peter Cushing's intrepid Dr. Van Helsing. Monlaur's damsel in distress characterization may be seen as politically incorrect in the age of social media demand of "strong" female roles, but it was perfect for the world of Gothic horror cinema.

There's also a special reason why Monlaur's role in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is important. There's a Hammer fan theory that Marianne and Van Helsing get together as an actual couple after the events of BRIDES. In later Hammer Dracula films, we meet Van Helsing's modern direct descendant, so he had to have hooked up with someone. There's also the fact that at the end of the film, Van Helsing and Marianne are locked in an embrace. Whenever I watch BRIDES I always feel that there is a subtle attraction between Van Helsing and Marianne, so it makes sense that Monlaur's character had a far bigger role in the Hammer universe.

I, and my good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy, had the great honor of meeting Yvonne Monlaur at the October 2014 Monster Bash Conference in Mars, Pennsylvania. My first impression of her was how small in stature she was....but she was also a kindly person, and she was very nice to Joshua and I. She even spoke French to us (we both got a kick out of that). When she spoke to us about Peter Cushing, she had so much admiration for him, she looked as if she was going to cry. Later on at the Bash, she participated in a Q & A forum, and she told a number of stories about her life and career. She seemed to enjoy herself at this event.

Meeting Yvonne Monlaur at the October 2014 Monster Bash

It was a huge deal for me to meet this woman--as I've stated before, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of my favorite movies of all time. It's my favorite Hammer film, my favorite Peter Cushing performance....and Yvonne Monlaur was the leading lady in it. She was the true definition of a classic Scream Queen, and she will always live on in the hearts of Monster Movie Geeks everywhere.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


YouTube Monster Theater continues with my recent viewing of SEDDOK--"L'EREDE DI SATANA"...a movie better known under its U.S. title, ATOM AGE VAMPIRE.

An Italian production from 1960, SEDDOK is one of those "Obsessed Doctor Who Will Do Anything To Restore The Beauty Of A Woman" stories, in the same vein as EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, and CORRUPTION. Like those other films, SEDDOK has a seamy undercurrent. It starts out with a striptease at a nightclub performed by the gorgeous Jeannette (played by Susanne Loret). Jeannette's ship officer boyfriend Pierre (Sergio Fantoni) disapproves of her dancing, and the two argue. Jeannette angrily drives home, and wrecks her car, causing hideous burns on her face. Jeannette believes she has nothing left to live for, but a mysterious woman named Monique (Franca Parisi) visits her in the hospital. Monique convinces Jeannette to visit the secluded home of a Professor Levin (Alberto Lupo) and undergo radical treatment. The Professor is able to restore Jeannette's face, but the effects are only temporary. The Professor, who has become infatuated over Jeannette, turns himself into a horrid monster in order to kill other women that will provide the source needed for a total cure.

This movie, under the title ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, has become something of a camp cult classic. It has all the ingredients to be an effective classic chiller, but it falls short of the mark. Susanne Loret is certainly attractive, but there's a coldness to her beauty, and her character comes off as whiny and self-absorbed. She does look great in a nightgown, though. (You just knew she was going to be wearing one in this type of movie.) Professor Levin seems to fall for Jeannette the very first time he sees her, and it's hard to understand why he would kill for her, especially since the young woman does not reciprocate his feelings. Besides, Levin's assistant Monique (who is very easy on the eyes herself) pines for the Professor. Monique winds up being the first victim to Levin's scheme to revive Jeannette's beauty, a plot element that I think was a mistake. Instead of killing off Monique so early in the tale, she should have been allowed to live (at least till the climax). This would have increased the dynamic between Levin, Monique, and Jeannette, and given more emotional weight to the story. Monique's absence leaves Levin to his own devices....all he has to judge him is a mute sad-eyed servant, who at least has a major role in the end. (Once again, I have to ask....why do so many supposedly brilliant scientists wind up with such lousy help??)

Susanne Loret

The Professor is so undone by his killing of Monique that he decides to turn himself into a monster--he feels that this will enable him to take other lives. This brings a "Jekyll & Hyde" element to the story, and since Levin goes out at night and targets ladies of the evening, there's a "Jack the Ripper" aspect as well. The Professor's monstrous state is more goofy than unsettling, but at one point during his first transformation a bit of stop-motion animation is used--an inventive idea. Alfredo Lupo is okay is Levin, but the part needs a Lugosi, or a Carradine, or an Atwill to make it flourish. (It would be very easy to believe that Lionel Atwill would go on a murder spree so he can operate on a stripper.)

The print of SEDDOK that I viewed on YouTube ran about 103 minutes (in Jonathan Rigby's book EURO GOTHIC, the movie's full running time is listed as 107 minutes). The version of this film known as ATOM AGE VAMPIRE runs 80-some minutes. I have to say that the cut-down version might be better. 100+ minutes is very long for this type of movie. Much of the second half of SEDDOK is bogged down by police procedure--old monster movie fans know that whenever an inspector shows up to investigate whatever strange killings are going on, it's time to get some snacks or head to the bathroom. Director Anton Guilio Majano does an adequate job, but the real visual highlights come from the black & white photography of Aldo Giordani. SEDDOK needs a Mario Bava or--dare I say it?--Jess Franco at the helm. Those two directors (among others) would have given the production an extra oomph. By whatever name you call it, SEDDOK/ATOM AGE VAMPIRE reminds me of several other much better horror/science fiction films.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Psycho Circus Triple Feature Blu-ray

Mill Creek Entertainment has released a Blu-ray triple feature consisting of three horror films from the late 60s-early 70s. Two of the films, TORTURE GARDEN and THE CREEPING FLESH, make sense being bundled together, since they are both British productions and they each star Peter Cushing. The third film, THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, is the odd one out, being a low budget American story about Devil worship.

The three films are all on one disc. Mill Creek names this collection "Psycho Circus", apparently inspired by the fact that TORTURE GARDEN is set in a carnival. Even with that weak link the name doesn't make much sense for the set overall. (PSYCHO CIRCUS, by the way, was the American title of the 1966 Christopher Lee film CIRCUS OF FEAR.) Thankfully, the disc cover is reversible, and the other side showcases promotional art for each movie (see picture above).

TORTURE GARDEN (1967) is one of Amicus Productions' many anthology films. This one is made up of four stories from famed thriller writer Robert Bloch, who penned the screenplay. The first three tales are not all that impressive. They deal with a diabolical cat, a jealous piano (yes, you read that right), and the obvious "secret" on why Hollywood legends never seem to age. The final story, "The Man Who Collected Poe" is by far the best. It has Jack Palance and Peter Cushing as Poe fanatics--with Palance finding out that Cushing has the ultimate Poe collectible. (Cushing has the smaller role, but you do get to see him act drunk.) Director Freddie Francis does what he can visually to jazz up the stories. The framing story has Burgess Meredith as a sideshow exhibitor named Dr. Diabolo, who shows folks their futures by having them examine a statue of Atropos holding the "shears of fate". Other than the last tale, TORTURE GARDEN is a bit underwhelming--except Palance, Cushing, and Meredith, it doesn't have the lineup of guest stars one usually sees in a Amicus anthology.

THE CREEPING FLESH (1972), also directed by Freddie Francis, is the best film in this collection. For whatever reason, it doesn't seem to get the respect it deserves, despite the fact that it is one of the more impressive Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee team-ups. The duo play half-brothers who are rival scientists in 1890s England. Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) has brought back a strange skeleton from New Guinea, and discovers that the find grows flesh when brought into contact with water. Emmanuel's studies of New Guinea native legends convinces him that the skeleton is the remains of a destructive being, and he tries to create a serum from the creeping flesh that will counteract evil. Unfortunately the serum brings about evil instead of suppressing it, and Emmanuel does not find this out until after he has injected his young daughter (Lorna Heilbron) with it. Emmanuel's wife had died in his half-brother James' (Lee) asylum, and the man fears his daughter will suffer the same fate. Meanwhile, James Hildern has scientific plans of his own, and he believes his half-brother's skeleton could be the key to reaching them.
This is more of a tragic film than a horrific one. Emmanuel Hildern tries to do what he thinks is the right thing, but all he brings about is madness and death. He may be misguided, but he certainly doesn't deserve his fate. Peter Cushing brilliantly puts across Emmanuel's emotional sensitivity, and Christopher Lee is at his sinister best as the domineering James Hildern. The film is stuffed with great Victorian atmosphere, and Freddie Francis produces one of this best directorial jobs. Other Cushing-Lee movies made around the same time, such as DRACULA A.D. 1972 and HORROR EXPRESS get more attention, but THE CREEPING FLESH is the better film. 

I had never seen THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971) until watching it on this Blu-ray. It's definitely the type of movie that played in drive-ins throughout America in the 1970s. A family gets stranded in a small town in California, a town where (of course) strange occurrences and horrific murders are taking place. It's all due to a satanic cult who are attempting to use the children of the murder victims to give them new life. The movie has a weird, creepy atmosphere, but it's overlong--it probably would have worked better as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or NIGHT GALLERY. There's also a ton of plot holes--while I was watching it I felt there were a number of things that were not properly explained. I don't know if that was what the screenplay was aiming for, or if certain details were inadvertently left out. Strother Martin is one of those actors that you can't help but take notice of, no matter what he's doing, so seeing him as a dedicated Satanist is....interesting, to say the least. THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN isn't terrible, but it really has nothing in common with TORTURE GARDEN or THE CREEPING FLESH, and why it is in this collection is a mystery.

This Mill Creek Blu-ray is Region A, and as is usual with this company's product, there are no extras whatsoever. This is a shame, especially in the case of THE CREEPING FLESH--someone like Jonathan Rigby would have been perfect for an in-depth commentary. All three films look very good on this Blu-ray, and they are all in anamorphic widescreen. The colors certainly don't pop, but I can say that TORTURE GARDEN and THE CREEPING FLESH look better on this Blu-ray than they do on the Sony DVD releases of each film.

The biggest inducement to buy this Blu-ray is the price. My final cost from Amazon (before taxes) was only $6.74. That's a heck of a bargain--just THE CREEPING FLESH alone on Blu-ray would be worth more than that total. Peter Cushing fans will obviously want to get this disc. Hopefully Mill Creek will continue to release low-price classic horror and science-fiction films on Blu-ray in the future.

Saturday, April 8, 2017


Osprey Publishing is well known for their voluminous catalog of books on military history. Name any conflict in world history, and Osprey has probably put out a title covering it. Now the company looks at cinematic dramatizations of wars past in FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS.

FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS, written by military historian Tim Newark, might better be called FIFTY VERY GOOD WAR FILMS. There's more than a few titles picked by Newark that I wouldn't call "great"--such as BEHIND ENEMY LINES. Newark includes a lot of fictional stories set in WWII, such as 633 SQUADRON and VON RYAN'S EXPRESS, but neglects to cover much better fact-based films on the conflict such as SINK THE BISMARCK. There's only one silent film selected: THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, a documentary made up of mostly actual combat footage. This means you won't find THE BIG PARADE or WINGS in this book.

Another good title for this book would be FIFTY GREAT MODERN WAR FILMS, because 32 of the 50 films deal with World War II. As a matter of fact, there are no films covered which deal with a war before the 20th Century. You won't find any Civil War movies, or films set during the Napoleonic Era, which is surprising.

Each of the 50 films gets a brief critique and overview which lasts a few pages. Stills and poster reproductions for the movies are spread throughout the book. As usual with an Osprey title, the book has a very neat & efficient design.

FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS is a okay little book--it's only 7 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches in size--but I think it is written in mind for military buffs who are not movie fanatics. The author's analysis of the titles is decent but very generalized--if you are a major film expert you probably won't find out anything new. I got FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS on sale from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers. I was hoping that it would be a bit more comprehensive in scope. I feel that the list of movies in this volume is more representative than definitive.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

THE SKULL On Kino Blu-ray

THE SKULL (1965) is one of the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movie team-ups, although Lee is really more of a guest star (he's even listed in the credits as such). The movie was produced by Amicus, the company that was the main rival to Hammer Films, and it was directed by legendary cameraman Freddie Francis. Kino has just released the film on Region A Blu-ray.

Amicus is best known for their many anthology horror movies such as THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. THE SKULL, however, centers on just one tale. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), an expert on and collector of the occult, comes into possession of the actual skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade. Maitland believes that his occult studies give him insight into why people fear the unknown, but the man has no idea what is in store for him as the skull begins to exert its deadly power.

THE SKULL was based on a short story by Robert Bloch entitled (naturally) "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". I read the story when I was a teenager, and there's not much to it--I think it's about 15 pages long. Amicus producer Milton Subotsky adapted Bloch's story to feature-length, but according to Freddie Francis the script was still too short. Francis' solution was to give the movie as many visual highlights as possible. The director and cinematographer John Wilcox fill the Techniscope widescreen frame with all sorts of carefully composed shots (this movie should be used as a guide for young filmmakers on how to use widescreen). Francis takes Maitland's study, which is filled with various exotic knick knacks, and turns it into a miniature haunted house, with the use of expert camerawork and lighting. Not only does the movie have very little plot, it has very little dialogue as well, enabling Francis to tell the story in visual terms. This extenuates the fantastic elements of the tale, whereas more plot & dialogue might have diluted them.

The biggest visual highlight of all is the POV shots from "inside" the skull. Francis had a large mock-up of a skull's face attached to the front of a camera, and while the effect may be a bit obvious it works rather well. Francis would reuse this technique for the monster in THE CREEPING FLESH (another Cushing/Lee movie), and he even did it as a cinematographer in David Lynch's version of DUNE.

How the POV shots of THE SKULL were achieved

Francis was helped immeasurably by his lead actor Peter Cushing. During most of the film Maitland is by himself, which means Cushing had to convey to the audience the character's situation without dialogue or the help of other actors. As usual, Cushing comes through--what other actor could emotionally react to a fake skull rigged up with wires and not come across as ridiculous? This is one of Cushing's best performances in any movie. Maitland is an academic, but he's not a Baron or a Doctor from another period in history. He's a modern man, a man who's confident that his knowledge of the occult puts him above superstition. He finds out very quickly that he doesn't know as much as he thinks (most of Robert Bloch's short stories have protagonists who realize too late how naive they are).

THE SKULL has an amazing supporting cast. Christopher Lee makes the most of his small role as Maitland's friend and fellow collector, a man who once owned the Marquis' skull and knows all too well its destructive power. Patrick Wymark just about steals the film as Marco, the disreputable dealer who sells Maitland the skull. Very small roles are filled by the likes of Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, and Peter Woodthorpe. These actors may not have much screen time, but their combined talents make THE SKULL feel even more impressive.

Despite the fact that it's a short story with a lot of padding, THE SKULL is one of the best films Amicus ever made. The combination of Freddie Francis' visual flourishes and the expert playing of Peter Cushing and the supporting cast show that it is possible to take a slight script and make more out of it than what is written down on the page.

I first saw THE SKULL when it was shown by Svengoolie (he was "Son of Svengoolie" back then) sometime in the early 1980s. Of course in those days it was shown in pan and scan, and THE SKULL cannot be fully appreciated in this manner. Legend Films released THE SKULL on DVD and then Blu-ray in the 2000s. Kino's Blu-ray release is a bit better in the picture quality department, but the colors still look somewhat faded (that may have to do with the fact that it was filmed in Techniscope).

Kino features some enticing extras on this disc. Hammer experts Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby give separate talks on the movie, each lasting about a half-hour. The two authors each discuss the real Marquis de Sade, the background and history of Amicus, and other relevant details. An audio commentary is provided by Tim Lucas, editor of the now late and lamented VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine. Lucas is one the best home video commentators and he gives THE SKULL a comprehensive examination. I'm sure I've seen THE SKULL more than a dozen times over the years, yet Lucas pointed out a number of things I never noticed. There's also a "Trailers From Hell" segment on THE SKULL which has director Joe Dante sharing his thoughts on the movie.

I have to assume that if you are interested in a movie like THE SKULL, you probably own it already on home video. I would rate this Kino release as a worthy buy due to the extras.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959) is one of the lesser known entries from Hammer Films. One of the reasons this may be is due to the fact that though Christopher Lee and Hazel Court appear in the film, German actor Anton Diffring is the main star. The film itself is not all that great--but that didn't stop me from buying it again on Blu-ray, this time from Kino under their Studio Classics line. (The movie was released on Blu-ray by Legend Films a few years ago.)

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, like much of Hammer's early Gothic product, is a remake. After the success of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA, American studios were lining up to make deals with Hammer, and Paramount signed up the British company to make a new version of a 1944 film called THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET. That movie was based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and Hammer's Jimmy Sangster adapted the author's work. Unfortunately Sangster didn't change the story too much from its stage origins. THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is a very, very talky film, void of the weird situations Sangster usually came up with for his other Hammer scripts.

Anton Diffring plays Georges Bonnet, a well-to-do doctor and sculptor living in 1890 Paris. Despite Bonnet's classic good looks, he's a distant, mysterious figure..and that's because he's actually 104 years old. Bonnet has prolonged his life through gland transplants, and every ten years he moves to another location, reinventing himself to keep his secret. One of his former flames, a beautiful socialite named Janine (Hazel Court), comes across Bonnet, and attempts to renew their relationship. But Bonnet is more interested in having Janine's friend Dr. Gerard (Christopher Lee) perform the much needed gland transplant. Gerard refuses, but since Bonnet has killed several people over the years, he has no qualms in forcing Janine and Gerard to help him continue to literally cheat death.

Peter Cushing was originally supposed to have played Georges Bonnet, but the actor bowed out, supposedly due to his heavy workload. Personally, I believe that Cushing didn't want to do the film because he wasn't excited about the script (he was no fan of Jimmy Sangster's writing.) Georges Bonnet is the movie's biggest weakness. He's a cold, self-centered, arrogant person, someone that attracts no decent feelings from the audience. At least Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein has the excuse that all his disreputable dealings are in the name of scientific research--Bonnet can't even use that angle. Bonnet just wants to go on living forever and having affairs with gorgeous women that he can discard whenever he has a need to. As played by Diffring, Bonnet isn't even a villain you can enjoy watching--the man has no charm, and he doesn't even seem to relish his unnatural life. Since Bonnet is the main character, and he spends most of his time making speeches defending his actions, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH can be hard to get through at times.

Anton Diffring was not a bad actor, but on-screen he didn't have the warmest personality. This made Diffring perfect in the many German military officer roles he played throughout his acting career. Diffring appeared in more than a few other horror films--his best role in that genre was the lead in CIRCUS OF HORRORS. Diffring's mannered coldness was perfect for that over-the-top film. The actor had already starred in a TV adaptation of THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET (now thought lost) and appeared as Baron Frankenstein for Hammer in the TV pilot of TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, before he was cast as Georges Bonnet. Diffring just didn't have the unique ability to make a dangerous scientist engaging to an audience, like Peter Cushing. Most monster movie fans wonder how THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH would have turned out if it had starred Cushing. I think the movie might have turned out far differently, because Cushing would have asked for major rewrites. (Another reason I feel Cushing rejected the role is that he must have sensed that Bonnet was basically a watered-down version of Baron Frankenstein--and he had played that role twice already.)

Hazel Court looks absolutely stunning in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, but there's not much to the character of Janine. You wonder why someone as vivacious as Janine would even be interested in a cold fish like Bonnet--Court and Diffring have no chemistry together. During a scene where Janine is posing for a statue being created by Bonnet, a topless shot of the actress was filmed, but it was never included in the American or English versions. That shot (or even a picture of it) is NOT on this Blu-ray...the shot is probably the most famous thing about the movie!

Christopher Lee has the rather thankless role of Dr. Gerard. It's telling that at the time, Hammer never thought about having Lee replace Peter Cushing as Bonnet (that would have been interesting). Lee doesn't get much of a chance to shine, but he gives a fine performance nonetheless. For those folks who are not impressed with Lee as an actor, let me put it to you this way--could you imagine Bela Lugosi playing a "David Manners" type of role?

For whatever reason I never got to see THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH on TV during my younger days--I don't even think Svengoolie ever showed it. I didn't actually see the movie until it was released on DVD in the 2000s. Legend later put it out on Blu-ray. Kino's Region A disc has moderately better visual quality, but it still looks a bit washed out. The movie's main color seems to be gold-yellow--even the main titles and the main movie poster (pictured on the disc cover above) are yellow, giving it a different look than most Hammer productions made during the same period. It still has the plush art direction and production design one expects from a Hammer film.

What makes this Kino Blu-ray worthy are the extras. English authors and Hammer experts Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby give separate discussions on the film, each lasting about 17 minutes. Both men go into the shortcomings of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, and talk about the state of Hammer Films at the time, Cushing's turning down the role, etc. I could listen to Newman and Rigby talk about Hammer all day long, and I'm sure most fans of the company share that opinion. Troy Howarth provides another one of his fine audio commentaries. I can personally attest to the fact that Troy is a Hammer fan, and the lack of on-screen action gives him a chance to comprehensively discuss the company and the major members of the on-camera and off-camera crew.

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is not a very exciting film. The wannabe screenwriter inside me can think of so many ways the story could have been improved. One expects more from it--it may not have featured Cushing, but it had aboard most of the other essential members of the Hammer team: director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, Lee, Court, and Sangster.  The real reason I bought this disc was because of the extras. Why would I rebuy a movie I'm not all that particularly impressed on Blu-ray?? Well, that's what movie geeks like me do. THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is more interesting for what it might have been instead of what it is.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


INVISIBLE GHOST (1941) is the first of the so-called "Monogram Nine", a series of films that Bela Lugosi starred in for the Poverty Row movie studio. In my opinion it's also the best, though that isn't saying much. INVISIBLE GHOST has long been a public domain staple on home video, but now Kino has released it on Region A Blu-ray.

Lugosi plays Charles Kessler, a supposedly kindly man who happens to live in a house where a number of unsolved murders have been committed. Years ago, Kessler's wife ran out on him with his best friend. The duo were involved in a car accident, and Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) is now a broken-down shadow of the woman she once was. Mrs. Kessler is kept hidden by the Kessler's gardener, but she manages to get out and wander around every so often....and when Mr. Kessler sees her, he becomes so emotionally distraught he goes into a trance and starts killing people!

As you can tell by the plot description, INVISIBLE GHOST isn't exactly the most sensible movie ever made. Kessler and his daughter (played by Polly Ann Young, lookalike sister of Loretta Young) don't seem all that concerned with staying in a house that is frequented by murder. (The local authorities don't seem to have been concerned with investigating any members of the Kessler family.) Apparently Mrs. Kessler has been in hiding for years, yet she manages to go out without anyone seeing her except Kessler. I guess one can understand why Kessler would go nuts on seeing his wife after what she did to him--but why does he kill random people, instead of Mrs. Kessler? There's plenty of other questions that come up when one watches this movie--but it's better just to sit back and accept INVISIBLE GHOST for what it is, a low-budget chiller flick and a prime showcase for Bela Lugosi.

What makes INVISIBLE GHOST the pick of the Monogram Nine litter is the atmospheric direction of Joseph H. Lewis. Lewis would go on to become a film noir specialist with such titles as GUN CRAZY, and he brings some of the attitude of that dark genre to INVISIBLE GHOST. For most low-budget horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, great direction was simply making sure the principals were in front of the camera and in focus. Lewis goes out of his way to make something out of INVISIBLE GHOST, with all sorts of unique camera angles and specially framed shots. The director uses dramatic lighting to show that Lugosi as Kessler has "turned", and he stages one murder scene by having the camera take the victim's viewpoint as Lugosi moves toward her. INVISIBLE GHOST may not make much sense story-wise, but visually it is above most films of its type.

In the 1940s, Bela Lugosi appeared in a number of horror movies that are now considered better than INVISIBLE GHOST, such as THE WOLF MAN, NIGHT MONSTER, and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. The thing is, INVISIBLE GHOST gives Lugosi the better role as Charles Kessler. One would expect Bela to ham it up in a movie like this, but he doesn't. He's actually somewhat restrained (for a guy who goes wacky from time to time). Most Bela fans feel that Charles Kessler is one of the actor's best performances from after his heyday in the 1930s. You can say what you want about Monogram, but I believe they did more for Lugosi than Universal or people like Ed Wood.

Kino's Blu-ray of INVISIBLE GHOST looks incredibly sharp for the first and last parts of the film. The middle section of the film is more degraded, with a softer image. Overall, though, Kino's presentation is far and away better than any other version of INVISIBLE GHOST. (While seeing how good the beginning of this Blu-ray looked, I had to wonder...if all of Monogram's films were this fine visually, would we have to totally re-evaluate them?)

The main extra on this disc is an audio commentary featuring classic monster movie expert Tom Weaver. Weaver literally wrote the book on low-budget chillers--POVERTY ROW HORRORS!, published by McFarland. (I got my copy of the book autographed by Tom at a Monster Bash Conference a few years ago.) As usual Weaver entertainingly passes on a ton of info, mixed in with some sly humor. On this talk Weaver brings in a few "guest stars"--Larry Blamire, Robert Tinnell, Gary Rhodes, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss, names that will be familiar to old monster movie geeks. It's one of the best commentaries Kino has produced.

Kino has done an outstanding job with INVISIBLE GHOST, a movie that for years has been relegated to the Golden Turkey lists. The legion of Lugosi fans will certainly enjoy it. If you already have one of those old public domain copies of the movie, you can get rid of it now--this Blu-ray upgrade is definitely worth buying.

Monday, March 27, 2017


This January I reviewed Robert Matzen's excellent book on the tragic plane crash that took the life of Carole Lombard as she was returning from a War Bond Rally. Matzen's latest work also involves a Hollywood legend and World War II. MISSION--JIMMY STEWART AND THE FIGHT FOR EUROPE details the actor's WWII service as a Army Air Force bomber pilot over the skies of Europe.

James Stewart's father served in World War I, and he had ancestors who served in the American Civil War. This family history gave Stewart a strongly-held belief in service to one's country. Stewart had been fascinated by flying ever since he was a young boy, so it was only natural that when America entered the war the actor became determined to fly in combat. Matzen details that in order for Stewart to get his wish to serve overseas, he had to not only fight the MGM front office, but the U.S. Army as well. Early in 1941 Stewart had won the Best Actor Oscar for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, and MGM didn't want to lose its investment in him. The Army was afraid of the repercussions if Stewart would be killed, or shot down and captured by the Germans and used as a propaganda story. Stewart was also considered too old (33 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and too thin to become a crack military pilot.

Nevertheless, Stewart, like many of the characters he portrayed on screen, persevered against great odds and got what he wanted. Stewart went from stateside flight instructor to squadron commander, group operations officer and wing commander, flying B-24 Liberators for the legendary Eighth Air Force. Stewart spent 16 harrowing months flying bombing missions.

Matzen briefly covers Stewart's life before and after WWII, but the main thrust of this book is the actor's war service. Matzen gives the reader full insight in what it was like to be a crew member on a B-24 Liberator, and how deadly each single mission was (many crew members died in accidents that had nothing to do with combat). One thing the author makes very clear is the freezing temperatures the B-24 crews had to endure flying at such high altitudes--several WWII dramatizations and books overlook this fact.

As someone who has never served in the military, it's hard for me to fathom the physical and mental strain James Stewart must have suffered. Instead of worrying about flubbing a line on a movie set, Stewart was now a commanding officer in a situation where one mistake could mean the difference between dozens of men living or dying. After the war Stewart would refuse to talk publicly about his experiences, but there's no doubt that the anguished characters he often played in his post-WWII movie career are a reflection of what he went through.

Despite James Stewart's assumed "aw shucks" demeanor and his small-town background, Matzen reveals that the man was far more complicated. Matzen writes that Stewart was "....a quiet, high-strung loner who fought feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt." Matzen contends that Stewart was far more of a ladies man in 1930s Hollywood than most people realize. The author also mentions that Stewart was unsure whether he would be able to successfully act again on the screen after the war ended.

What comes across the most in Matzen's book is that James Stewart was not just a movie star or a war hero, but a real human being--which makes his accomplishments on the screen and in battle even more impressive. James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, and I've read many books about him. I was somewhat familiar with his war record, but MISSION is now the ultimate word on the subject. After reading it my admiration for Stewart grew even more, if that's possible. The book will appeal to both film & military history buffs.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

My 500th Post!!!!

Yes, this is my 500th post. I can't believe I've written so many of these things--and to what end? I sometimes wonder. Nevertheless, I have gotten a great deal of enjoyment out of doing this, and I've made some worthy contacts through the blog. (Unfortunately, I haven't made any money off of this blog....)

I don't plan on ending this blog anytime soon. There's still hundreds of hundreds of movies I haven't even covered yet, and plenty of film topics I haven't discussed. There are times when writing this feels like schoolwork--especially when I agree to participate in a blogathon, and then spend way too much of a weekend fulfilling my promise. But I guess there are far worse things I could be doing.

I really love it when I get feedback on the blog, which is very seldom. A few of my friends have said to me, "Why do you write about so many obscure movies?? Why can't you talk more about movies everyone knows??" For me personally it is far more of a challenge to write about a film that has had very little coverage on it than dealing with famous classics. I have written about famous films such as CITIZEN KANE, but when I do that I feel like I'm wasting my time, because these movies have been discussed so much by so many people who are far more articulate about cinema than I am.

And as for those folks who say, "You don't like anything but old stuff!"--my response to that is, I am what I am. If you want me to get all trendy and start dishing about the latest movies and TV shows, that's not me. Quite frankly, what passes for popular entertainment in the 21st Century doesn't excite me all that much. I'm convinced that the main reason certain movies and TV shows are popular now is because people are talking about them on social media. It's as if actually watching the product is secondary. In a way we've all become bloggers. I certainly can't harp on everyone in the world now becoming a critic--I'm part of the group--but creativity will always be far more important than criticism.

If there are any certain films or movie topics you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments section. I'll even give you credit when I write the post!

Now, I'd like to share some stat tidbits from the blog.

Times I've mentioned Peter Cushing in my posts: 78
Times I've mentioned Star Wars in my posts: 70
Times I've mentioned John Ford in my posts: 48
Times I've mentioned Batman in my posts: 31
Times I've mentioned Meryl Streep in my posts: Twice

And now, here's a list of the five posts from The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog that have gotten the most views.

1. Evelyn Ankers & Lon Chaney Jr. (posted 7/13/13)
This was written for a blogathon concerning great movie duos. Why, exactly, would this get the most views? I give credit to Svengoolie. Over the last few years on Me TV, Sven has shown just about every Universal horror film Lon Jr. and Ankers appeared in together multiple times. I believe that after Sven shows these movies, people get on the internet and want to know more about the duo's contentious relationship--and my post comes up on the search engines.

2. Happy Birthday To Caroline Munro (posted 1/16/13)
Hey, Caroline Munro is a cult movie legend, so this doesn't surprise me. And I think all the fantastic photos of her I included in the post probably helped as well.

In honor of my 500th post, here's a photo of my favorite baseball player of all time, Frank Thomas, hitting his 500th home run. What does this has to do with movies? Absolutely nothing. 

3. You're Braver Than I Thought (posted 3/6/13)
This post was my immediate response to the news that Disney was going to start making brand new Star Wars movies. A interesting thing to read now.

This was about a Three Stooges box set--and the Three Stooges are very, very popular.

5. LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #30 (posted 6/8/13)
In this post I reviewed issue #30 of Richard Klemensen's fantastic magazine on Hammer Films. Apparently that issue must have been popular--but I also suspect folks were searching on the internet for other things containing to the phrase "little shop of horrors", and this post came up.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon--"Return Of The Cybernauts"

I participated in the "Favorite TV Show Blogathon" (hosted by the great A Shroud of Thoughts blog) a couple years ago. Back then I chose a WILD WILD WEST episode, the debut of Dr. Loveless. This time around, I'm covering an episode of the legendary cult British TV series THE AVENGERS--an episode which stars none other than my favorite actor, Peter Cushing.

"Return of the Cybernauts" is a direct sequel to an earlier AVENGERS episode called, naturally, "The Cybernauts". In that show, the avenging duo of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) stop a mad scientist named Clement Armstrong (Michael Gough) and his mini-army of destructive robots. In "Return of the Cybernauts". Peter Cushing plays Paul Beresford, who, unknown to Steed and Mrs. Peel, is Armstrong's brother. Beresford is determined to get revenge for his brother's death.

THE AVENGERS remains one of the great cult TV series of all time. Diana Rigg was on the show for only two full seasons, but it is the Emma Peel era that is most remembered, especially by Americans. Trying to describe the quirky, stylized, and adventurous 1960s hip attitude of the show to someone who's never seen it is almost impossible. THE AVENGERS is much better watched than discussed. THE AVENGERS often dipped into the realm of the fantastic, and it was fitting that an actor who played so many roles in the horror and science-fiction genres such as Peter Cushing would appear as a guest star. "Return of the Cybernauts" is a treat for Cushing fans. The actor gets to play a contemporary role (he's still dressed to the nines), and Paul Beresford is different from the usual villain. Beresford is no out-and-out madman--he's someone who can turn the charm on when he needs to, and while he wants to destroy Mrs. Peel, the man can still appreciate the woman's attractiveness.

Beresford is planning to kill Steed and Mrs. Peel--but he wants to do it in a way that makes the duo suffer as much as possible. Beresford has one of his late brother's remaining cybernauts kidnap three prominent scientists. The three men are secreted at Beresford's estate, and are coerced to devise a scheme to eliminate Steed and Peel. Meanwhile Beresford has befriended the duo, who are now charged with investigating the disappearances of the three scientists. Two of the captured men figure out a way to control a person's nervous system and turn that subject into a literal human cybernaut. Beresford gives Mrs. Peel the gift of a bracelet, which contains the control device inside. A similar device (hidden in a watch) is meant for Steed, but he winds up not wearing it...which enables him to save Mrs. Peel from being a zombie, and foil Beresford's plans.

Diana Rigg and Peter Cushing in "Return of the Cybernauts"

The real highlight of "Return of the Cybernauts" is seeing Peter Cushing interact with Diana Rigg. Cushing had very few chances in his screen acting career to use any romantic charm, and here he gets to use it on one of the loveliest women in television at the time. Not only does Beresford kiss Mrs. Peel's hand several times, he even calls her Emma--which almost never happened on any other AVENGERS episode. Patrick Macnee's unflappable John Steed even comments on Beresford's attentions--which causes Mrs. Peel to proclaim that Steed is jealous! Cushing gives the impression that even though Beresford wants to revenge himself on Mrs. Peel, there's other things he'd like to do with her as well. When Beresford is shown that the remote control device works on Mrs. Peel, and she is now under his command, he's almost giddy at the prospect. ("Is there anything more gratifying than the obedience of a beautiful woman?", he satisfyingly exclaims.) In a split second Cushing's Beresford goes from displaying a kindly smile to being coldly calculating and ruthless. Despite the character's villainy Cushing brings style and elegance to the role--Beresford appears to be enjoying his devious antics, and no doubt Cushing enjoyed being in this episode.

"Return of the Cybernauts" was written by AVENGERS veteran Phillip Levene, and it was directed by Robert Day (who recently passed away). Day had directed Cushing in Hammer's SHE in 1965. Day uses a number of unique camera angles and edits in the episode, and he shows the Cybernaut as an almost unstoppable force, and a more than worthy opponent for Steed and Mrs. Peel. The program was first broadcast in the U.K. on 9/30/67, and in the U.S. on 2/21/68.

All of the surviving episodes of THE AVENGERS are fast-paced and entertaining (even the ones without Diana Rigg), but "Return of the Cybernauts" is made even more special with Peter Cushing as guest star. Cushing gained his first major notice as an actor from television, through his work on the BBC in the early 1950s. Due to his being based in England, Cushing never got the chance to participate in the many 1960s American TV shows that now dominate the "Retro" cable channels of today. It would have been fascinating if Cushing had shown up on American networks--my guess is he would have loved to be on one of the many small-screen Westerns that frequented the period. Much of Cushing's work for the BBC is now unavailable, but "Return of the Cybernauts" exists, and it gives everyone the chance to see what this magnificent actor could do with the "Guest starring on a TV show" role.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The "Favorite Movies For Every Year I've Been Alive" List

One of the most trending activities on the internet this week is making a list of favorite movies for every year of your life. Since this is a movie blog, I figured I might as well join in.

I must point out that this is a list of favorite movies from a particular year, not what may be considered the best. (There is a big difference.) A number of years featured several movies I could have chosen, while others were quite barren. There were a few years where my choice was mainly by default. I don't pretend that this list is the result of serious analytical criticism--it's just for fun. Don't take it too seriously, and please don't ask me to do a Favorite Films of the Year list for the rest of the 20th Century before 1969--that would be too much work.

1994-ED WOOD

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


As many of you know, Claude Rains made a memorable appearance in one of the greatest films ever made--LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The last theatrical feature Rains starred in before LAWRENCE was....BATTLE OF THE WORLDS.

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is a 1961 Italian science-fiction film. (The original Italian title was IL PLANETA DEGLI UOMINI SPENTI.) Claude Rains plays the irascible Professor Benson, who tries to save the Earth from being destroyed by a rogue planet. I viewed the movie (in a decent print and in widescreen, no less) on YouTube.

The movie begins with an attractive woman running around an exotic seaside location while a haunting melody plays in the background. At first I thought I was watching a perfume commercial, but the lady, named Eve (Maya Brent), is actually on an island where a scientific research center is located. Eve works on the island along with her fiancee Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini). Fred discovers a strange planet heading straight for Earth. He reveals this to the grumpy Professor Benson, who tells Fred he already knows what is happening through his own calculations. (Benson refers to the planet as "the Outsider".) The planet doesn't crash into Earth, but starts orbiting it instead. The planet has a fleet of deadly flying saucers as a defense system, and Benson and his scientific cohorts must find a way defeat this threat.

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS was directed by cult legend Antonio Margheriti, under his usual pseudonym of Anthony Dawson. Margheriti would go on to direct other Italian sci-fi adventures such as WAR OF THE PLANETS and WILD, WILD PLANET. Those films are far more outlandish than BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. I would even say that most American science-fiction films of the same period are more outlandish. BATTLE OF THE WORLDS has a very straightforward story line, and it doesn't have monsters carrying away damsels in nightgowns. The female characters in the film are dressed rather demurely for a low-budget sci-fi flick--no mini-skirts and high heels--and the women work as equals alongside the men on the island, at a Mars base, and in outer space. The FX sequences are more than adequate for the period. The various shots of the spaceships featured in the story are short and edited quickly, which stops the viewer from getting too good a look at them. Whenever spaceships do appear on the screen, they are backed musically with a strange tonal & choral combination that brings to mind the creepy sound effect used in the original INVADERS FROM MARS.

Claude Rains is without doubt the real star of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. Instead of going through the motions in a movie that most would consider beneath him, Rains gives the role all he has. His Benson is one of those gruff misanthropes who wind up having more heart than those around him. Rains gets a showcase sequence where he tries to convince the "United Commission" (who he communicates with through video screens) to let him have full power to combat the "Outsider". It's the equivalent of a stage soliloquy. At the climax of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, Benson joins Fred & Eve on an expedition to the Outsider planet--which allows us to see the 72-year old actor fitted out in a full spacesuit and space helmet. Rains may look out of place in astronaut gear, but it shows how determined his character is to solve the mystery of the Outsider.

The other actors (all dubbed in English in the version I viewed) are okay, but there's no Franco Nero or Barbara Steele in the bunch. (Umberto Orsini does resemble Richard Chamberlain a bit.) There's no main bad guy role either. Take away Claude Rains from BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, and you would have a very different (and very lifeless) film.

What has been written about BATTLE OF THE WORLDS usually falls along the lines of "Poor Claude Rains must have been embarrassed..." Well, Rains had nothing to be embarrassed about. He got lead billing, and he got a juicy role that he could play to the hilt. BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is very cerebral compared to other science-fiction movies made around the same time, which may be one reason why it doesn't have a major geek following. The movie has some interesting concepts, the main one being that the Outsider was the product of a long-dead alien race, and the planet was stuck on a kind of auto-pilot. (The "Dead Aliens leaving the lights on" plot has been used in several famous TV shows and movies.) BATTLE OF THE WORLDS seems to have fallen into public domain purgatory, and one wishes that a company like Kino would release the movie on a restored Blu-ray. (One thing you have to say about Italian sci-fi movies from the 1960s--they certainly were colorful.) BATTLE OF THE WORLDS isn't on the same level as PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, but it is worth seeking out for science-fiction fans...and especially for anyone who admires the acting ability of Claude Rains.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


It's time for another obscure black & white Italian horror film featuring the undead. This one comes from 1962, and was originally titled LA STRAGE DEI VAMPIRI--the version of it I viewed had the title SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES. (The movie is also known as CURSE OF THE BLOOD GHOULS.)

One would assume that a movie called SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES would have all-out battles between blood-suckers and the living. But the actual story is less ostentatious than that, with very few characters. The plot revolves around 19th Century European newlywed couple Wolfgang (Walter Brandi) and Louise (Graziella Granata), who have taken residence in an old castle. Unfortunately for the pair, a vampire (Dieter Eppler) has decided to hide out in the wine cellar, and he's soon making moves on Louise. Wolfgang is at a loss in dealing with his wife's new sickness, and he goes to get help from the ironically named Dr. Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella), who just happens to be an expert in vampirism (the vampire hunter-vampire ratio in 19th Century Europe must have been enormous). By the time Wolfgang and the Doctor get back, Louise has become a full-fledged member of the undead, and now Wolfgang is next on the list to be converted.

SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES has an unusual opening scene--we see a male & female vampire on the run from torch wielding villagers, the type of sequence usually shown at the end of a horror film. The female vampire is dispatched by the mob, while the male gets away, to hide in the newlywed's castle after the main titles are shown. We get no backstory whatsoever on the male vampire--he doesn't even get a proper name in the story, so we don't even know if he's a count, a baron, or just a working-class guy. He does wear a red-lined cape and a frilly white dress shirt, so at least he's decked out properly. The bad news is that he also is wearing about 20 pounds of makeup, which makes him resemble either a silent movie actor or a 1970s glitter rock star. With his mediocre facial job, it's hard to take Dieter Eppler seriously as a supernatural menace.


The real star of SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is the raven-haired & voluptuous Graziella Granata as Louise. Because of her predicament, Louise spends a lot of time--do I even have to tell you this?--wandering around in the dark wearing a nightgown. But she looks fantastic doing it, and her vampire has far more flair and energy than Eppler's. In most vampire tales, the entire story revolves around saving a beautiful young woman from being vampirzed, whether it be Helen Chandler, Suzan Farmer, Veronica Carlson, etc. The interesting twist in SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is that the young female lead is already lost to the undead before the vampire hunter can get down to business. Right after her transformation, Louise is putting the moves on her grieving husband, and she shows no remorse in doing so.

There's no doubt that SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES was influenced by Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA--at one point Dr. Nietzsche emerges from off-screen and sticks a cross in a vampire's face, just like Peter Cushing's Van Helsing did. Dr. Nietzsche has a lot of other things in common with Cushing's Van Helsing, such as going on about how he has spent his life investigating and tracking down the undead. Luigi Batzella certainly can't match Peter Cushing in the acting department, but he does make a good vampire hunter, and he brings a strong mature presence to the film.

Walter Brandi was a very underwhelming vampire in THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. Here, he gets to play a role that suits him much better, a David Manners-type of character. You feel sorry for poor Wolfgang, but at the same time you can't help but think that the guy wouldn't be able to take out the trash, let alone destroy a supernatural creature.

SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES was written and directed by Roberto Mauri. Mauri lays on the atmosphere when he can, but the film does drag a bit. Having seen this film on YouTube and on a low-priced Retromedia DVD, I have to wonder how much more appreciation I would have for it if I had viewed it in a pristine condition. (The version I saw was dubbed, which didn't help matters much.) The movie forms a sort of loose trilogy along with THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, but I would rate those two movies higher because there are more interesting things going on in them (and they also have a lot more gorgeous women). SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is an okay vampire flick, nothing more.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Favorite Actor/Comic Book Character Combinations

This post is inspired by my recent viewing of LOGAN. While preparing it, I realized that there are not as many great superhero movie portrayals as I thought there were. Despite the popularity of the comic book movie genre, most folks seem to complain about certain actors playing certain comic book characters than commend their performances. I chalk that up to the Culture of Geekdom.

I limited myself to choosing from people who played an actual comic book character in a theatrical feature. That means I couldn't, for example, pick Christopher Walken as Max Shreck in BATMAN RETURNS. (That also means no TV portrayals.) Whenever I write one of these lists, I always seem to forget someone, and I probably will here. If you think I have overlooked a certain performance, any type of feedback will be appreciated.

1. Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine in multiple films
I firmly believe that the entire 21st Century era of comic book films started with X-MEN. The breakout performance in that film was Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine. The quality of the X-Men film series has varied over the years--but Jackman's Wolverine has remained constantly popular. I'm sure someone else will play the character someday--but I sure don't envy the person who will have to do it.

2. Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman in BATMAN (1966)
Before you even cry foul, remember that West did appear as Batman in a theatrically released film...and also remember that West still has had more impact in the role than all the other Batman actors put together.

3. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America in multiple films
The steadfast, brave, and honest Captain, as portrayed by Evans, is a rarity among all the "troubled" superheroes we have seen on the big screen in the last few years. Evans has accomplished something rare these days in making a decent man believable without coming off as too goody-goody or stuck up. It sure would be nice if DC/Warners could show Superman the same way....

4. Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach in WATCHMEN
I'll state once again that WATCHMEN is one of the greatest comic book movies of all time. All of the Watchmen are intriguing in their own right, but for my money Rorschach is the most compelling character of all. Haley was perfect in showing the inner rage of a man who can't stand the society he lives in, yet still risks his life to protect it.

5. Jack Nicholson as the Joker in BATMAN (1989)
Yes, Heath Ledger was fantastic in THE DARK KNIGHT, but Nicholson was the real star of Tim Burton's much so that the Bat villains have been overshadowing the Caped Crusader on the big screen ever since.

6. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man in multiple films
If Hugh Jackman's performance as Wolverine was of vital importance to the comic book movie genre as a whole, then so was Robert Downey's performance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If the first IRON MAN movie had bombed, there may not even have been a MCU. When I first heard that Downey was going to be Iron Man, I thought the movie was going to be one big joke--but the actor got the last laugh, reviving his career and making Tony Stark his signature performance.

7. Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent in multiple films
Reeve was the ultimate Man of Steel--it's sad he didn't have the opportunity to be in the type of comic book movies they make today. The reason I don't rate Reeve's performance higher is that I've always thought his Clark Kent was far too nerdy.

Honorable Mention: Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier in multiple films; Ian McKellen as Eric Lensherr/Magneto in multiple films; Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in multiple films; Gary Oldman as James Gordon in multiple films; Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS

Sunday, March 5, 2017


There's been a huge amount of buzz about LOGAN ever since the project was announced, and having now seen the film, I can say that it lives up to the hype. Director James Mangold (who also provided the story) fashions a tale that is unlike any other comic book movie, a tale that has a low-budget 1970s sensibility. I would even go as far to say that LOGAN is the HELL OR HIGH WATER of superhero films.

Set in the year 2029, LOGAN has Hugh Jackman's iconic Wolverine reduced to being a limo driver in a bleak world where mutants are all but extinct. Logan has hidden Professor Charles Xavier out in Mexico--the 90 year old Professor X is suffering from the onset of dementia, and his powerful brain has now become a dangerous weapon. Logan intends to take the Professor and go even deeper into hiding--but he's forced to help a mysterious young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), a mutant who has a few things in common with the Wolverine. The result is a brutal, bloody tale that has little in common with the CGI fueled comic book spectaculars we've been inundated with over the last decade.

LOGAN has very little to do with the rest of the X MEN movie series, but at the same time the story rests on our familiarity with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier. We've watched these fine actors play these roles for the last 17 years, and seeing their characters' condition in LOGAN can't help but make us feel for them. Logan and Xavier have become haunted, broken down old men, merely existing in a world that no longer needs them. I've never taken seriously all those movie awards, but if you are going to give those things out, the performances of Jackman and Stewart in LOGAN need to be recognized. I believe that Hugh Jackman as Wolverine might be the greatest performer/comic book character combination in screen history. (Do I have a list coming up of my favorite comic book movie performances? Mmmmm.....could be...)

Someone else who deserves awards consideration is Dafne Keen as Laura. I don't want to discuss too much about her character, so as not to spoil the film for those who haven't seen it. Suffice to say that the young girl better be prepared to spend her future as a geek icon.

LOGAN has great acting, but it also has a great feel to it as well. Despite being set in 2029, the movie seems far more realistic than superhero films set in the present. There's a texture here, a sense of actual locations. There's no entire city blocks being destroyed, no outlandish villains standing in a hurricane of electrical energy. Some may complain that LOGAN isn't as "fun" as the typical comic book movie, but James Mangold didn't want to make that type of story, and he should get credit for that. There are all sorts of comic book stories, and there should be all sorts of comic book films. Many have compared LOGAN to a Western, and that opinion certainly does apply--in fact, one of the most famous Western movies of all time is heavily referenced in it.

For those wondering how dark the film really is definitely a hard R. This is not a movie for kids, and even some adults might be turned off by some of the things the 11 year old Laura does. There won't be any Happy Meal toys tied to this picture.

LOGAN isn't perfect--despite it's not being a blockbuster, it still lasts more than two hours, and it loses a bit of steam right before the climax. But it has to be ranked among the best of the comic book films. It is a fitting valedictory for Hugh Jackman in his (supposed) last outing as the Wolverine. Jackman's Logan is one of the pillars on which the entire culture of geekdom that rules the entertainment industry has been built, and the actor should be recognized for that. More importantly, LOGAN proves that not all comic book movies have to be the same. Hopefully other directors and writers will take note of this and go out of their way to move the comic book movie genre into different directions.

Friday, March 3, 2017


I'm not a fan of the "making fun of bad movies" industry--the Golden Turkey books, Mystery Science Theater, etc.. A major part of that is I have too much respect for anyone who manages to make a theatrical film, no matter how it turns out. If you know my cinematic tastes, you'll know that many of the films I watch are somewhat...unusual, to say the least. Despite the rise of Geek Culture, there are still plenty of folks out there who believe that any subject involving the weird or the fantastic is bound to be crap. One of the things my Dad always says is, "Why can't you watch movies that have real stuff that happens in them??" Well, if I wanted reality, I'd look out the window--or go on the internet, and read the posts of everyone who is whining and moaning about whatever is going on in the world today.

A bad fantastic movie can still wind up being far more entertaining than a mainstream one. For me, the worst thing a movie can do is be boring, and most so-called worst movies ever are at least not boring. And that brings us to the subject of the 1944 very low-budget VOODOO MAN, starring Bela Lugosi. Even lovers of strange cinema find VOODOO MAN to be terrible--but what is the line between strange and terrible?

VOODOO MAN is one of the notorious "Monogram Nine", a series of films made by that poverty row company which starred Bela Lugosi. The Monogram Nine are well known to most film buffs due to the fact that most of the titles have been readily available in public domain home video formats. When I started collecting movies in the late 1980s, the Lugosi Monogram features could be found wherever VHS tapes were sold. (If you consider other Lugosi titles such as WHITE ZOMBIE, THE HUMAN MONSTER, and his collaborations with Ed Wood, there's no doubt that Bela is the all-time Prince of Public Domain.) Many use the Monogram films as an example of how far Bela's star had fallen in the 1940s, but these pictures gave him far more to do--and far better roles--than he was given by Universal at the same time. These movies may seem ridiculous to some, but because of their easy to see status, and the fact that Bela starred in them, they've had a longer shelf life than many bigger-budgeted, more reputable films made during the same period.

VOODOO MAN stars Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe, a man who is trying to bring back his wife from the dead with the power of voodoo. The doctor is assisted in this endeavor by a man named Nicholas (George Zucco), who runs a nearby gas station. Yes, Zucco, the erudite and distinguished British character actor, is in charge of a gas station. (If you think that's the worst indignity Zucco is going to suffer in this're wrong.) Marlowe also has at his command a half-witted half-wit named Toby (John Carradine), a creepy housekeeper, and a brutish looking fellow named Grego (if this movie had been made ten years later, Grego would have been played by Tor Johnson). Nicholas, during his shift at the gas station, waylays attractive young women toward Marlowe's house, where the doctor has an electrical device that shorts out their car's engines. (Marlowe sees them coming through his very own closed-circuit TV monitors.) Toby and Grego then kidnap the women and take them to Marlowe's cellar, where the doctor and Nicholas engage in a voodoo ceremony to attempt to transfer the girls' mental faculties to the comatose Mrs. Marlowe.

Despite Nicholas' solemn declaration that "Ramboona never fails", the voodoo ceremonies get no response from Mrs. Marlowe. They do, however, leave the girls used in the ceremony as zombies themselves--and Marlowe keeps them in the basement, in their own separate compartments, dressed in white robes. (If VOODOO MAN had been made decades later, you can bet there would have been a more prurient reason for Marlowe keeping the sleeping beauties around.) The missing girls attract media attention, which is shown through the typical newspaper headlines we've all seen in hundreds of B movies. Marlowe gets his comeuppance when he captures the cousin (Louise Currie) of the fiancee (Wanda McKay) of a hack screenwriter (Michael Ames).

Describing the plot of VOODOO MAN really doesn't do the film justice--it needs to be seen. Lugosi, in his goatee and formal evening clothes, looks very refined, and he even underplays the role of Marlowe. (Director William Beaudine constantly lights Bela's face from underneath, giving him a sinister undertone.) One would expect Bela to ham it up in a role like this, but he doesn't--it's actually one of his best poverty row performances. Maybe Lugosi toned it down because he was surrounded by so many oddball characters. John Carradine as Toby makes Lon Chaney Jr's Lennie look like a nuclear scientist. Carradine does all sorts of weird stuff here, talking to the zombiefied girls as if they were pets, and stroking their hair (I'm convinced that Carradine ad-libbed during the entire picture). George Zucco is best known for his incisive and subtle villainy in dozens of movies, but here (when not working at a gas station) he has to wear a silly-looking robe, put on a sillier-looking headdress, wear face paint, and make prayers to the supposed all-mighty voodoo god Ramboona. It's bad enough that poor Zucco has to spout gibberish, but when he starts making wild gyrations and faces directly at the camera, you can't help but wonder what the actor was thinking at those moments.

Monogram's horror films never worried about logic, and VOODOO MAN appears to have none at all. Lugosi says that he wife has been dead for 22 years, yet she's far from a rotting corpse--she's a attractive woman in her early 20s, wearing one of those flowing white robes (did Marlowe order a bunch of those robes at wholesale?). Mrs. Marlowe is also able to wander around (Louise Currie's character gets to amble about while in her zombie state as well), and these scenes bear a small (very, very small) resemblance to I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Sarcastic folks might come to the conclusion that since Lugosi has a pretty young wife who doesn't talk, and shows no emotion whatsoever, he shouldn't complain.

The "good guys" in the film are even more inadequate than Lugosi & Co. Michael Ames, in the David Manners role, is just as useless as David Manners. Louise Currie and Wanda McKay (who both co-starred with Lugosi in other titles in the Monogram Nine) are attractive, but their roles give them nothing to work with. There's a country sheriff and deputy who make Andy Taylor and Barney Fife seem like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. (Despite the fact that the missing girls were last seen on a road near Marlowe's house, no one seems to have bothered to investigate the place.)

The ending has the sheriff interrupting one of the voodoo ceremonies to save Wanda McKay and Louise Currie (the screenwriter guy tried, but he got knocked out--figures). Lugosi raises a voodoo knife, but the sheriff shoots him dead. Mrs. Marlowe also expires (maybe--she didn't seem dead in the first place). The girls all go back to normal, and the screenwriter goes back to the studio, having written up the events as a new story. He suggests that it's perfect for that one actor...Bela Lugosi!

It would appear that VOODOO MAN is one of those bad movies people love to make fun of. But let's compare it to another low-budget chiller made about the same time, Universal's 1943 film NIGHT MONSTER. That movie also stars Bela Lugosi, along with Lionel Atwill. Both men are basically wasted in their roles, and the story is okay, nothing more. In VOODOO MAN Lugosi is deservedly the real star, and even though the roles John Carradine and George Zucco play may be embarrassing--at least they get to do something. VOODOO MAN is far goofier than NIGHT MONSTER--but it is a goofiness that draws attention and stays in the memory.

It is far more satisfying to me to write a post about VOODOO MAN than the latest CGI spectacular that has A list stars and a $200 million+ budget. Many of those CGI blockbusters I wind up forgetting about a couple days after I've seen them. Technically, VOODOO MAN is a bad movie--but I'd still rather watch it than anything George Clooney has been in recently.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

DELUGE On Blu-ray From Kino

DELUGE is a film that for many years was considered lost. Released in 1933, it is looked upon as one of the first disaster movies--and it can also be categorized as one of the first post-apocalyptic movies as well. I had never seen this movie, but I was aware of it due to its being included in several books and articles on science-fiction cinema I had read over the years. Kino Lorber has just released a restored print of it on Blu-ray.

DELUGE was mentioned in the histories of science-fiction cinema due to its sequences featuring the destruction of New York City. These sequences actually appear in the beginning of the film. The rest of the story is much more scaled down, covering the attempts of a few survivors to carve a living in a new barren world.

The main protagonists in the story are a man named Martin (played by Sidney Blackmer), who believes his family has been lost in the earthquakes and floods which have ravaged the Earth. Martin tries to carry on by himself, and he meets up with a young attractive swimmer named Claire (Peggy Shannon). Claire is on the run from a brutish thug named Jepson (Fred Kohler). Jepson joins up with a group of other loutish individuals, and Martin and Claire must protect themselves from the gang. Meanwhile, Martin's wife and children are still alive, and part of a small band of men of women who are trying to rebuild in a civilized manner. The triangle between Martin, his wife, and Claire comes to a head during the film's climax.

For most viewers the opening scenes of mass destruction will be the most interesting thing about DELUGE. Some will consider the much-touted footage to be a disappointment, but one has to accept the fact that these were state of the art special effects for the times (and in fact the effects would be re-used in other movies and serials). It's not so much that the effects are bad, it's that the viewer assumes that the entire story will be filled with such catastrophic destruction, and it's not. The opening scenes feature character actors Samuel S. Hinds and Edward Van Sloan as worried scientists.

The rest of the film is a bit of a comedown after seeing New York City reduced to rubble. Sidney Blackmer's Martin is a decent fellow, but he doesn't seem to have the inner strength to deal with the supposed loss of his family and go on to be a lone survivor. (He's certainly not a Charlton Heston OMEGA MAN type.) Peggy Shannon has a bit of spunk as Claire, and she also shows some Pre-Code sexiness (in a couple of scenes it appears she's wearing nothing more than her underwear). Fred Kohler is decidedly nasty as the cruel Jepson. The post-destruction scenes have a very low-budget vibe to them--forests, caves, and some run-down buildings are all that represents this new world.

What makes DELUGE stand out, other than the FX, is the fact that it is one of the very first entries in the disaster/post-apocalypse genre. Many of the elements of that genre that are shown in such films as THE OMEGA MAN, the MAD MAX movies, and even THE WALKING DEAD TV series, crop up in DELUGE.  A lone survivor gathering supplies, convinced he's the only person left in the world...a character ticking off days on a makeshift calendar...a group of dangerous thugs trying to take advantage of the breakdown of civilization pitted against a group of folks who wish to restore that civilization...these things appeared in DELUGE years and years before they became something of a cliche.

The print that Kino has used for this Blu-ray isn't perfect, but at least the film exists. The extras include an audio commentary be Richard Harland Smith, who reveals several details behind the film's production, such as the creation of the film's effects. The Blu-ray also has an entire bonus feature, a 1934 film called BACK PAGE, starring the leading lady of DELUGE, Peggy Shannon. BACK PAGE is about a reporter (Shannon) who leaves the big city to become an editor of a newspaper in a small town in California. There she uncovers political scandal involving the town's oil well. Shannon (who kind of resembles Clara Bow) does very well here, even though the film itself is mediocre. The actress was good-looking, and she had a perky attitude...but unfortunately her film career was ruined by alcoholism, and she died very young (Richard Harland Smith goes into this in his commentary).

DELUGE is more interesting than entertaining. Film buffs will appreciate it more than a general audience. It deserves some notoriety as one of the earliest disaster movies, but this is not a Roland Emmerich--CGI fueled end of the world flick.