Sunday, December 31, 2017
Once again it's time for me to list my top five movie home video releases of 2017. Last year I had trouble coming up with a top five, but this year I could have easily increased this list to ten. And there was plenty of appetizing offerings I didn't purchase--I do have to eat and pay bills, you know.
I've been hearing for the last few years about the "death" of physical media...yet 2017 saw a slew of prime cult home video product. There's a definite market out there for this sort of material, and companies like Arrow, Shout Factory, Severin, and Kino are doing a wonderful job of filling it (and getting a huge chunk of my hard-earned cash in the process). I don't stream (or even field & stream), but I've got discs piled up all over my house, and that's just the way I like it.
As I do every year, I must point out that I purchased all my picks, and that they are all Region A or Region Free.
1. BARRY LYNDON (Blu-ray) from Criterion
Stanley Kubrick's historical epic looks magnificent, and according to Criterion, it is in the correct aspect ratio. What made me choose this as #1 is the fact that this release provides an entire separate disc of extras, thoroughly analyzing the making of the production. I wrote a full review of this in October.
2. CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (DVD/Blu-ray) from Arrow
2017 was a very good year for fans of the Italian Maestro of the fantastic, Mario Bava. His films ERIK THE CONQUEROR, KILL, BABY...KILL!, and ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK all received high-end releases. Arrow's version of CALTIKI makes the list due to its giving a public domain title the respect and extras a major mainstream picture would garner. My review of it was posted in May.
3. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Blu-ray) from Cohen
James Whale's quirky tale of British eccentricity has been given a splendid restoration on this disc, and that fact alone is enough to put it in my top five. I covered this release in October.
4. THE LOST WORLD--1925 version (Blu-ray) from Flicker Alley
Another splendid restoration of one of the most influential fantastic films ever made, jam-packed with pertinent extras. My full review of it was posted in October.
5. THE PINK PANTHER FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory
For the first time ever, all the Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers are included in one set. All six of the films gets its own disc, with numerous extras covering each production. I've never written a proper review of this because I still haven't gotten to most of the extras yet!
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Warning--This post has spoilers.
I still haven't seen THE LAST JEDI for a second time yet, but I've been reading so many articles and reviews of it on the internet in the last week that it feels like I've seen it multiple times. It seems as if everyone wants to express their opinions on the movie....and most of those opinions are not very positive.
It's almost as if Disney and Rian Johnson went out of their way to produce something that would cause angst among the fan community. The thing is, they didn't have to do that. This is a Star Wars movie, after all--people were going to endlessly debate about it no matter how it turned out. But it seems like THE LAST JEDI especially is designed around revelations and spoilers. The overall plot--what there is of it--takes a back seat to the "trending moments".
Because of the way the film is designed, I have to wonder how much I will enjoy it a second time, knowing how things will play out. What I most liked about THE LAST JEDI were the scenes between Rey and Luke, and between Rey and Kylo Ren. And of course I was highly anxious to find out what was going to happen with Leia.
As for all the other stuff, and the new characters?? I wasn't too impressed. The Canto Bight and "Let's figure out how to outrun the First Order" sequences seem to exist for the express purpose of giving Finn and Poe something to do...and that just shows the limitations of these characters. There's no need for me to dump on the Canto Bight scenes--enough folks have done that already. Suffice to say that saying "Canto Bight" is now comparable to saying "Jar Jar Binks".
It's obvious that in THE LAST JEDI Poe is presented as a Han Solo equivalent. The problem is...there is no such thing as a Han Solo equivalent. Poe ain't Han, and Oscar Isaac ain't Harrison Ford. Poe comes off as a jerk in this story, and he even literally gets slapped down. What it comes down to is...are Finn and Poe intriguing enough characters to make you want to see more of them in the next Star Wars film? For me personally, the answer is no.
I could go on whining about the new characters, but let's move on to the revelations. First off...apparently Rey isn't related to anybody important. I say apparently because, how do we know that Kylo isn't lying to her?? I will say that the idea that Rey comes from nowhere or nothing special is a unique concept--but it also makes her character more of a cipher, since we still don't really know all that much about her.
I liked the idea that Kylo and Rey are linked through the Force. I was convinced that because of this, they were related somehow. But if they are not....is Kylo attracted to Rey? I think that would be a good idea to pursue in the next film. I don't think the story will go down that route, but just imagine what plot points can come out of the main bad guy wanting to be with the main heroine.
When Kylo killed Snoke, it certainly surprised me because I thought, "That's one movie too early..." Then I immediately realized that Kylo wasn't turning to the light side, he just wanted overall control. The problem with this twist is that while Vader's killing of the Emperor was the culmination of an entire saga, Kylo's act seems more like an arbitrary "gotcha" moment. We know basically nothing about Snoke (and it looks like we never will), so his death doesn't really have much impact after the initial shock of seeing it.
Due to Carrie Fisher's passing, THE LAST JEDI had a perfect opportunity to let Leia go out in a blaze of glory. I assumed (along with almost everybody else) that this is what was going to happen, and purple-haired Laura Dern would take Leia's place. But wait!! Leia makes it through the whole movie, and it's purple-haired Laura Dern who gets the heroic sacrificial moment. Trust me, it's not like I wanted to see Leia die on-screen...but how are you going to deal with her in the next movie?? As for Leia's "Mary Poppins" moment....it's....unique, I guess.
For me, the whole Luke-Rey sequence was the best thing in the film. It is Mark Hamill who carries THE LAST JEDI. This isn't my version of an older Luke Skywalker (and apparently it isn't Mark Hamill's either), but Hamill makes it work. Did I really need to see an embittered, reclusive Luke? No more than I needed to find out that Han and Leia had a bad marriage and a punk kid, and that the punk kid killed Han. Anyway, the scene where Luke talks about how hypocritical the Jedi were was right on the mark, and I loved Yoda's admonishment of Luke. Some say that the climax, where Luke projects himself into the final battle, was a cheat--but I thought it was very moving, and at least we got a final Luke-Leia scene out of it.
So in the end, the best way I can describe THE LAST JEDI is that it's not terrible, and it's not great. It does leave the saga in a precarious position. Luke could return for a scene or two as a Force ghost, but that's about it for him. Leia probably isn't going to be seen again, and other than Kylo and Rey's relationship, what else do we have? A bunch of characters that, in my opinion, are nothing to get all that excited about. I still think Disney made a mistake in redoing the war between the Empire and the Rebels. This is science-fiction fantasy, after all--there's hundreds of ways they could have gone without having to re-use the same type of spaceships and the same type of elements. There are so many things in both THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI that just merely remind me of similar and better sequences in the Original Trilogy. No, I'm not being a hater. The Original Trilogy will always have special resonance for me, and whatever Disney decides to slap the Star Wars title on is going to suffer in comparison.
Saturday, December 16, 2017
I'm going to have to limit myself on what I can say about THE LAST JEDI in this post, because I don't want to reveal anything.
First off, I think it was better than THE FORCE AWAKENS, a film that I thought was basically a semi-remake of the original STAR WARS. THE LAST JEDI does have some THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK elements to it, and it also recalls RETURN OF THE JEDI.
But I wouldn't call THE LAST JEDI a great movie. It's overlong, and there's a few subplots that drag the story down instead of advancing it. THE LAST JEDI actually kind of reminds me of the several overstuffed, two hours-plus superhero epics we've been inundated with the past few years. There's multiple big-time action set pieces, and there's multiple "We have to perform a certain task in a certain time or we're all doomed" sequences, and there's multiple climaxes.
As for all the major revelations...Writer-Director Rian Johnson leads the audience down a particular path a number of times, only to pull the rug out from under everybody. The question is...is this clever writing or is it just a cheap way to manipulate the viewer?? This film has so many detoured scenarios that I couldn't help but think that a bunch of Disney executives spent a weekend in a boardroom trying to figure out ways to set up the fans. Much of the humor in the movie comes off as ill-timed. (Did George Lucas have some input on the script after all?).
I've heard some on the internet call THE LAST JEDI the most polarizing Star Wars film, and I guess I would agree with that assessment. There's plenty of things here that I enjoyed, and plenty of things that made me go "Huh??". I intend on seeing the movie again soon, and in a week or so I will write a more extensive blog post covering the film.
Thursday, December 14, 2017
The What A Character Blogathon gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss one of my favorite movie supporting players--the English actor Michael Ripper (1913-2000).
Anyone who is a huge fan of Hammer Films (such as myself) can't help but smile whenever Michael Ripper shows up on the screen. The first thing people think of when Hammer is mentioned is of course Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and then all the beautiful ladies featured in their productions, and then maybe the Gothic period atmosphere of the company's many horror films. But Michael Ripper was just as important to Hammer as those aforementioned elements. Ripper appeared in more Hammer movies than any other performer, starting with THE DARK ROAD (AKA THERE IS NO ESCAPE) in 1948. The actor's last acting job for Hammer was in THAT'S YOUR FUNERAL, made in 1972.
If Cushing and Lee represented the aristocracy of Hammerland, and the gorgeous scream queens represented the glamour, then Michael Ripper represented the working class. Ripper, with his everyman's face, was not physically imposing or impressive. But he did have the one main ability that every great character actor must posses--the ability to take a small or supposedly non-important role and make it memorable. Ripper never played a lead in a Hammer horror film, and he never played a mad scientist or a vampire, but he played just about everything else for the company. Very few characters in a Hammer film seemed to actually have to work for a living--but those that did were usually portrayed by Ripper.
Ripper was a very valuable commodity for Hammer. The company's productions were made under a strict budget, and there was no time to waste with difficult or unprofessional talent. Ripper could handle just about any role....well, maybe any role--his casting as a Japanese soldier in the WWII melodrama THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND wasn't the best use of his abilities. But other than that, Hammer's front office knew that Ripper could be relied upon to be on time, know his lines and give something more to his role--and the film he was in--than could be measured in the script. He was able to play good guys and bad guys with equal ease. Depending on the character he played Ripper's smile could be kindly and whimsical, or devious and threatening. The actor also had a well-honed sense of comic timing. (Most of the darkly humorous moments in Hammer cinema are directly provided by Michael Ripper.)
Ripper started his acting career as a young man, and most of his work in the 1930s and 40s was on the British stage. Ripper appeared in a number of movies during this period, but most of his roles were uncredited. In the early 1950s the actor underwent an operation for a thyroid condition, and his throat was weakened as a result. This forced Ripper to concentrate more on film roles (when you do watch Ripper in one of his many Hammer roles notice how he very rarely raises his voice, and when he does he sounds rather hoarse).
Ripper appeared in more than just Hammer movies--he shows up in such famous British films as RICHARD III, REACH FOR THE SKY, and SINK THE BISMARCK!. But he will be remembered for the many horror titles he was associated with. Ripper was a personal favorite of Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis, the two most important directors of English Gothic cinema. Ripper's relationship with Francis enabled the actor to be in such non-Hammer horrors as THE DEADLY BEES, TORTURE GARDEN, and THE CREEPING FLESH.
There's something to enjoy in every one of Ripper's film performances, but I'd like to point out a few of my favorites. In Hammer's 1962 period adventure NIGHT CREATURES (AKA CAPTAIN CLEGG), Ripper plays the role of Mipps, the steadfastly loyal member of Peter Cushing's crew of smugglers. In THE REPTILE, Ripper appears as the friendly Tom Bailey, who goes out of his way to help a young couple fight a strange menace in a small Cornish village. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE has Ripper in probably his most well-known role, as the lovable (and somewhat philosophical) tavern keeper Max. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is one of the many Hammer outings in which Ripper was behind a bar or in front of one, so I might as well include one of the actor's several tipsy performances--the magnificently named "Old Soak" in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, where he literally gets scared straight when he has to spend time in a jail cell with Oliver Reed's tragic lycanthrope.
As Hammer started a sharp decline in the 1970s, Ripper's film roles started to decrease. He began to concentrate on British TV before his retirement in the early 1990s. Before his death in 2000 he was able to attend a few monster movie conventions in the United States where he was (to his astonishment) received with great warmth from many Hammer fans.
The Hammer Films catalogue has had an important part in my life as a film buff. Because of that, I'm more familiar with Michael Ripper's performances than most "big time" mainstream actors. He really was a character--and to classic horror film fans, something of an old friend. It's very easy for a supporting player to be overshadowed by the likes of Baron Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and various voluptuous young ladies in nightgowns--but Michael Ripper left his mark on every single production he was ever involved in.
Monday, December 11, 2017
ADVENTURES OF KITTY O'DAY is Monogram's 1945 sequel to DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY. Jean Parker returns as Kitty, as do Peter Cookson as her boyfriend Johnny and Tim Ryan as Inspector Clancy. (As in the first Kitty film, Ryan is also credited as co-writer.) William Beaudine also returns as director.
In this story Kitty and Johnny work at the swanky Townley Hotel--she as a switchboard operator, he as a travel agent. Kitty's job fits perfectly with her busybody attributes, and while answering a call from the hotel's owner, she overhears the man being shot. Kitty sends Johnny to see what is going on, and he discovers the owner's body. When their old friend Inspector Clancy shows up, the body has disappeared. Of course all sorts of (supposedly) wacky complications ensue, with the body of the murdered man popping up in various spots in the hotel and other suspects turning up dead.
There's a lot more emphasis on comedy in Kitty II than there was in Kitty I. If anything, Kitty is more flighty and emotional than she was in the first film. She also does a lot of screaming here, and Jean Parker's yelps are on a Fay Wray-type level. Parker even gets to engage in some slapstick during a long chase through the hotel's corridors. The mystery (such as it is) takes a back seat to Kitty and Johnny's antics. The duo spend a lot time arguing with one another, and when they're with Inspector Clancy they argue with him, and while these scenes attempt to be funny they get a bit tiring after awhile.
This was the last Kitty O'Day film, and it's doubtful that the series would have improved if it had continued. Monogram was too low budget to give the character any pizzazz--further adventures of Kitty might have worked if she visited exotic locations and had excellent character actors to play off of. It's a tribute to Jean Parker that Kitty O'Day doesn't come off as a total pain in the neck--because when it's all said and done that basically what the character is. The Kitty O'Day movies remind me of the many classic TV sitcoms that would have episodes where the main members of the cast play detective. Jean Parker by far is the best thing about them.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
When I started becoming a film buff in the mid-1980s, the VCR home video boom was starting to commence. Video rental stores were popping up on every corner, and VHS tapes were being sold at just about every type of establishment. The big-name mainstream movies on VHS were rather expensive to purchase back then, but there were plenty of cheap public domain movies to be had.
I noticed that one of the actresses who kept cropping up in these low-budget tapes was Jean Parker. She starred in such famous public domain films as FLYING DEUCES with Laurel & Hardy, ONE BODY TOO MANY with Bela Lugosi, and BLUEBEARD with John Carradine. In the 1930s Parker had appeared in such major pictures as LADY FOR A DAY and RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, but for whatever reason she was relegated to Poverty Row titles in the 1940s.
It's hard to understand, at least from my viewpoint, why Parker didn't become a major Hollywood star. She was very pretty, with a nice figure, and she had an appealing personality. She was also a more than capable actress who could handle drama and comedy. The lady herself must have been disappointed at her lack of major roles, since she left Hollywood in the mid-1940s and concentrated on stage work.
The actress did get to play a kind-of recurring series role for Monogram in the character of Kitty O'Day. The two Kitty O'Day features are among those many black & white low-budget flicks that I watch on YouTube while trying to get to sleep.
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY was made by Monogram in 1944. In this one Kitty is the secretary to a business executive named Wentworth. Kitty's boyfriend Johnny Jones (Peter Cookson) is an accountant dismayed by Wentworth's overwork of Kitty. Kitty is told by her boss to come over to his house after hours to do even more work, and while there she discovers the man hanged. Both Kitty and Johnny--who was handling a large amount of securities for Wentworth--wind up becoming suspects. Kitty decides to try and capture the real culprit, dragging along an exasperated Johnny. The duo's investigations wind up getting them into more trouble, since wherever they go another dead body pops up.
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY tries very hard to be like one of those screwball comedies of the 1930s. The movie is only an hour long, and it thankfully moves at a accelerated clip. There's a lot of rapid-fire dialogue exchanges between Kitty, Johnny, and a frustrated police inspector named Clancy (played by Tim Ryan, who co-wrote the screenplay). Clancy has a dumb associate named Mike (dim-witted cops were a dime a dozen in movies like this). The comedy quotient in this is higher than the usual Monogram picture, but it is on the level of a mediocre Three Stooges short. At one point Kitty and Johnny disguise themselves as part of the cleaning staff at a high-rise apartment building, and they wind up getting stuck outside on the building's ledge, but the sequence goes on too long to be effective. The mystery isn't all that hard to figure out, simply because there's not that many leading characters, and about half of them get killed.
Jean Parker carries this film--the character of Kitty would have come off as simply annoying if played by an actress who wasn't as charismatic. We are first introduced to Kitty as she is listening in to her boss' conversation with his wife, a great way to show the audience how noisy she is. Kitty is constantly interrupting people and finishing their sentences, and her deductive "skills" are rather lacking. Whenever Kitty does discover a corpse, she faints. She solves the case basically by happenstance. It is Jean Parker's combination of looks, gumption, and personality that make Kitty tolerable.
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY was directed by William Beaudine, who worked on dozens and dozens of similar Poverty Row titles. He would also direct the follow-up film, ADVENTURES OF KITTY O'DAY, which I will discuss in a later blog post.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST (1945) is one of the few horror films produced by Republic Pictures, a studio better known for Westerns. Olive Films has recently released the movie on home video, and believe it or not, I had never seen it before. It is an unconventional vampire tale, and one that I found surprisingly effective.
THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST has very little in common with the other low-budget Hollywood monster flicks made around the same time. It is set in Africa, in contemporary times, instead of a Gothic European location. The cast does not feature any familiar names such as Lugosi, Carradine, Atwill, or Zucco. The story takes place in the fictional town of Bakunda, where a number of mysterious deaths have upset the natives. As you have no doubt guessed, the victims were drained of blood, and there were two tiny punctures in their necks.....
Local plantation official Roy (Charles Gordon) is determined to find out who is behind the murders, and he decides to ask the owner of a waterfront bar, Webb Fallon (John Abbott) if he has any information. The quixotic Fallon has not been in Bakunda long, but he already has knowledge of the seamier aspects of the town. While out on a jungle expedition with Fallon, Roy finds out that the man is a vampire! Fallon puts Roy under his spell, and prevents the man from disclosing this information. There's another reason why Fallon zaps Roy....the undead creature is interested in the young man's pretty fiance, Julie (Peggy Stewart). With help from a missionary, Roy battles against Fallon's dark powers.
John Abbott, a plain-looking and slightly built English character actor, might seem miscast as a vampire. He sure isn't Bela or Chris Lee--but I found his performance kind of refreshing. Webb Fallon's vampiric tendencies are more subtle than the usual cinematic bloodsucker. He doesn't wear a cape or evening dress--ironically he spends most of the movie in a white tropical suit. Fallon even goes about in the daytime when he has to, with the help of sunglasses. He does appear to have superhuman strength (at one point he makes short work of a bunch of toughs during a barroom brawl) and like most of his undead movie brethren he can hypnotize someone within seconds. Instead of coming off as an evil supernatural creature, Fallon gives the impression of someone who is suffering from a curse and is unable to control his actions. Despite his affliction Fallon tries to live a "normal" life (if hiding out in a backwater African town and running a shady dive can be considered normal), and every so often he wistfully reflects on the sadness of eternity. I would even go as far to say that the character of Webb Fallon anticipates other sensitive vampires found in DARK SHADOWS, the Anne Rice novels, and the TWILIGHT series.
The rest of the cast is rather mediocre, except for Adele Mara, who plays an exotic dancer who works in Fallon's establishment. Director Lesley Selander does create a few atmospheric sequences, and since the running time is only about an hour long, the movie doesn't wear out its welcome. This is very much a low-budget production, with the expected studio jungle settings. The native African characters are portrayed just about the way you would expect in a American film made in 1945.
The original story of THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST was provided by Leigh Brackett, who also co-wrote the screenplay. As a writer Brackett worked on some of the most famous films ever made, such as THE BIG SLEEP, RIO BRAVO, and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, among others. She deserves credit for coming up with a vampire story that stands out from pack of 1940s Poverty Row horrors.
THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST has apparently never had an official home video release before. The picture quality (the movie is in black & white) is very good. As usual with Olive, there are no extras whatsoever. I purchased the DVD version of THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST (Olive has also released a Blu-ray version).
I must admit that the main reason I liked THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST so much was that I had never seen it before. When you've seen as many old monster movies as I have, and you've seen them so many times over, you can't help but be intrigued with something that shakes the expected format up a little. I wouldn't say THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST is a great film--but it is a nice little "B" picture that deserves some attention.
Monday, December 4, 2017
My recent internet ramblings led me to stumble upon a 1934 Universal "B" movie called SECRET OF THE CHATEAU, a murder mystery that isn't all that thrilling or mysterious.
The story is set in France, although none of the cast go out of their way to act particularly French. A quirky Inspector named Marotte (Ferdinand Gottschalk) is determined to catch a criminal mastermind who steals rare artifacts, despite not knowing who the culprit is or what he or she may look like. Marotte attends an auction of items from a recently deceased aristocrat's estate, where he encounters Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd), a woman who he had sent to jail for document theft. The late aristocrat's nephew Paul (Clark Williams) arrives at the auction and lets it be known that his uncle has an original Gutenberg Bible at the family chateau. Julie, the Inspector, and sundry other suspicious characters gather at the chateau, drawn by the priceless tome.
I figured that since SECRET OF THE CHATEAU was produced by Universal, it would have some of the characteristics of that studio's other 1930s thrillers. But director Richard Thorpe stages things in a routine, uninspired manner--this movie looks as if it could have been made at any low-budget studio of the period. One expects the chateau referred to in the title to be presented as atmospherically as possible, but the indoor sets are rather generic. The identity of the criminal mastermind isn't all that hard to figure out (it was the character I suspected the most).
The most interesting thing about SECRET OF THE CHATEAU is its leading lady, Claire Dodd. She appeared in numerous Pre-Code Hollywood films of the early 1930s, and almost always she was the "bad girl" or the "other woman". She almost never got to play leading heroine roles. (She did play Della Street in some of the 1930s Perry Mason movies.) Here she does get lead billing, but her character still isn't exactly on the square--she has a criminal record, and she's egged on by her partner-in-crime to try and steal the Gutenberg Bible. (She does have a change of heart in the end, though.) Dodd was a very elegant looking woman and in her roles she always seemed to have a formidable attitude. It's nice to see her as a leading lady but in all honesty she doesn't get much of a chance to shine here. Dodd would later return to Universal and appear in the 1941 version of THE BLACK CAT with Bela Lugosi and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET with Lionel Atwill.
The Universal thrillers of the 1930s usually had a stock supporting cast of great character actors, but unfortunately that's not the case here. The movie does feature another Pre-Code cutie, brassy blonde Alice White, and Osgood Perkins, the father of Anthony Perkins, is also in the cast. Ferdinand Gottschalk (there's a name for you) does make an impression as the boastful Inspector.
SECRET OF THE CHATEAU belongs in the "Forgotten Horrors" category, and you really have to be a geeky film buff to want to sit through it. The poster that is at the beginning of this post is more exciting than anything that happens in the film.
Monday, November 27, 2017
A couple months ago one of my favorite Hammer actresses, Jennifer Daniel, passed away. In the blog post I wrote about her as a tribute I lamented how much of Daniel's on-camera work is unavailable to Americans. Recently I was on YouTube and I happened to stumble upon a film called MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE, a 1960 British crime drama starring Jennifer Daniel. The production also features a number of performers who would have or already had links to Hammer Films: John Cairney (THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES), Moira Redmond (NIGHTMARE), and John Van Eyssen (HORROR OF DRACULA).
MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE was part of a series of black & white low-budget mystery stories based on the work of famed writer Edgar Wallace. These films were made at the Merton Park Studios by Anglo-Amalgamated, and they were released in the U.K. as second features. In America the films were shown on syndicated TV as EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERY THEATER. I'm familiar with the series of German "Krimi" films adapted from Edgar Wallace, but I must admit I had no knowledge of the British series.
I can only judge the British Edgar Wallace films from my viewing of MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE, but according to my internet research on the series, the individual entries were very similar. While the German Edgar Wallace films contained such elements as science-fiction, horror, and fantastic adventure, MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE is much more down-to-earth.
The story concerns Larry Wilson (John Cairney), a young man who is serving time for a bank robbery. Larry sets up a fake marriage to the daughter (Jennifer Daniel) of a former cell-mate--this enables Larry to be let out (under police supervision) for the ceremony. Larry manages to escape and hide out at his ex-cell-mate's house. Larry plans to visit his girlfriend (Moira Redmond), who has been hiding the money from the bank robbery...but the wanted man finds out that the woman is now married to the Inspector (John Van Eyssen) who put him in jail! Larry rightfully assumes that his girlfriend and the retired Inspector are sharing the loot, and he sets his sights on tracking them down and getting revenge...but Larry has someone on his trail--another police official (Harry H. Corbett) who is determined to bring him to justice.
It's easy to see from watching MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE why the British Edgar Wallace series was shown on American TV. MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE is about an hour long, and it was filmed by director Clive Donner in a very straightforward, no-frills manner. The story has no overt violence or provocative situations--it reminded me very much of a typical 1960s TV episode. John Cairney brings a lot of intensity to the desperate, hotheaded Wilson, but it's hard to feel any sympathy for him. Jennifer Daniel very capably fills out the "nice girl" role--while watching this I kept thinking that her character was too sensible to be involved in Larry's schemes, and sure enough, she winds up telling all to the police. John Van Eyssen is quite smarmy as the crooked Inspector, but Harry H. Corbett makes the biggest impression as the dogged "regular guy" detective who solves the case.
I certainly wouldn't call MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE a spectacular discovery--from my point of view it's interesting for the cast more than anything else. The poster that you can see above is probably more exciting than anything that happens in the film. I would be interested in seeing more entries from this British Edgar Wallace series--since they were all made in the early 1960s I'm sure there are several Hammer veterans involved in them. For me the main draw here was seeing Jennifer Daniel. She's as beautiful as she was in her Hammer roles, but unfortunately she really doesn't get much to do here.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
Kino Lorber adds to their growing collection of fine Spaghetti Western Blu-ray releases with THE MERCENARY, a 1968 film directed by Sergio Corbucci. (The movie is also known as A PROFESSIONAL GUN.)
This is one of the many Euro Westerns set during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th Century. Paco Roman (Tony Musante) is a peasant mine worker who leads a revolt against his bosses. Paco encounters gun-for-hire Sergei "The Polack" Kowalski (Franco Nero), and the mercenary helps the peasant become a revolutionary hero. Paco's continued reliance on Kowalski annoys determined rebel Columba (Giovanna Ralli). Despite her frustration Columba is in love with Paco, and she convinces him to turn against Kowalski....but the revolutionaries find out that fighting for the people is a lot more complicated than they think.
THE MERCENARY features a typical Spaghetti Western situation with a cool, calculated gringo paired with an emotive, rough-edged Mexican national. Franco Nero brings his usual charismatic screen presence to the role of Kowalski, and he carries the film. Tony Musante is okay as Paco, but this is the type of role would be better suited for Tomas Milian. (When Sergio Corbucci basically remade THE MERCENARY a few years later as COMPANEROS, he cast Milian alongside Nero.) Giovanna Ralli looks more like a fashion model instead of a Mexican peasant woman, but her character of Columba happens to be the most interesting. She's totally committed to the revolution, and she points out time and again how Paco is basically subservient to Kowalski--yet at the same time Columba is in love with Paco and stays loyal to him no matter what. The interaction between Paco, Kowalski, and Columba is what sets THE MERCENARY apart from other films of its type.
Jack Palance also appears in this movie, as the very strange Curly, another gun-for-hire who works against Kowalski and the revolutionaries. Just like Franco Nero, Palance would play a variation of his THE MERCENARY character in COMPANEROS.
THE MERCENARY isn't as nihilistic as other Corbucci films such as DJANGO and NAVAJO JOE, but it still has plenty of violent action. This movie also appears to have a bigger budget than the usual Corbucci picture, and they may be due to it being produced by Alberto Grimaldi. Because of the Mexican Revolution aspects of the story many have called THE MERCENARY a "political" Western...but I can't say that I agree with that. Paco and his followers are basically a rag-tag group of bandits, and what success they do have is owed almost entirely to Kowalski. Paco is constantly having his hide saved by the white European mercenary, even at the very end of the film. Nero's Kowalski is only interested in making money off of whatever situation he winds up in--he even demands that Paco draw up a contract for his services, a contract that includes bonuses and perks! The "people" are not presented all that sympathetically in THE MERCENARY. If anything, I think the film is rather sardonic toward the left-wing politics of the late 1960s. (The script for THE MERCENARY was written by Euro Western veteran Luciano Vincenzoni.)
Kino presents THE MERCENARY in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the movie looks very fine. An audio commentary is provided featuring Alex Cox, who shares his extensive knowledge on the Spaghetti Western genre. A couple of animated image galleries are included, and these are backed with selections from the movie's music score by the brilliant Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai.
Thursday, November 23, 2017
During this year's Monster Bash Conference, I met the esteemed Derek Koch, the man behind the fantastic Monster Kid Radio Podcast. I informed Derek that I would love to be a guest on the show....and a few weeks later Derek called me up and we discussed the 1972 Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee film "The Creeping Flesh". (You wouldn't expect me to talk about a Julia Roberts movie, would you???)
We had a great time, and I think that comes out on the broadcast. I guess this could be considered my first "official" interview....hopefully I won't put anyone to sleep. I'm writing this post on the very day of Thanksgiving, so if you've got nothing to do while resting yourself after the big dinner, I suggest avoiding the crappy NFL games and listen to Derek and I examine what I think is one of the most underrated Cushing-Lee films, and maybe even one of the most underrated examples of English Gothic Cinema. And please check out the other podcasts that Derek has produced....there's all sorts of great geeky stuff in them!
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
The best way I can sum up JUSTICE LEAGUE is that it's not as bad as I thought it would be--but not as good as it should be.
What helps JUSTICE LEAGUE is that it's only two hours long, and filled with all sorts of plot. There's so much stuff going on that you have a tendency to overlook some of the film's weaknesses. First of all the heroes (Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg) need to be gathered together, and then the villain's grand scheme needs to be explained. And then there's the Superman sub-plot.
What hurts JUSTICE LEAGUE the most is the main villain. I have to say that Steppenwolf does not make this movie a Magic Carpet Ride. In the DC Comics Universe the character is associated with Darkseid, a nemesis I've never been all that impressed with. Even when I was regularly reading DC Comics, I never got into the whole "Outer Realms" stories--they were too outlandish and fantastical for me. Steppenwolf is another of those far too many comic book movie bad guys that seem to have unlimited power, but in the end wind up being fairly easy to dispose of. Steppenwolf is basically a Dollar General version of Sauron. His army of parademons (they reminded me of the flying monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ) serve the same purpose as the Trade Federation droids did in the Star Wars prequels--they're a non-human threat that can be killed by the hundreds without causing the movie to gain an R rating. Since there was so much at stake with JUSTICE LEAGUE, why wasn't a more well-known threat used, such as, say, Braniac? My theory is that the name brand DC villains are being saved for future films....but the way things are going, there may not be all that many DC movies headed our way.
When it comes to the good guys in JUSTICE LEAGUE, Wonder Woman absolutely comes out on top. Gal Gadot has more charisma than all the other heroes put together, and things brighten up considerably when she is on the screen. If there really is an official DC Movie Universe, Gadot's WW is definitely the true star of it. I enjoyed Ezra Miller's version of the Flash, mainly because the way the character is portrayed here is almost exactly the way he is in the Justice League animated series.
When I found out that Cyborg was going to be in JUSTICE LEAGUE, I wasn't too impressed...but I have to say that the movie (and actor Ray Fisher) did a very good job of making the character interesting. Jason Momoa's Aquaman wasn't the train wreck I thought it was going to be--but I'm still not going to be first in line to see the AQUAMAN movie when it comes out. As for Ben Affleck's Batman--with all the stuff going on in the story, he seemed kind of lost. Batman wouldn't be the type of person to go running around trying to get other superheroes to join him--that's more of Superman's thing. But, oh yeah, Superman couldn't do that here because he was killed off by Doomsday.
It won't be a big revelation to say that Superman returns (see what I did there?). In all honesty, though, it wouldn't have hurt this movie all that much if he hadn't made an appearance...it might have even helped it. I'm still not totally sold on Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel or Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
There where times during JUSTICE LEAGUE when the movie felt a bit schizophrenic--due of course to the transition from Zach Snyder to Joss Whedon during production. There's more attempts at humor here, and while some of it falls flat, a few of the lines did make me smile. JUSTICE LEAGUE isn't the overlong slog that BATMAN V SUPERMAN was. I would say it's worth going to see on the big screen. Overall, it's an okay film.
But...maybe that's the problem. This is the Justice League, for crying out loud. This should be a momentous production, one of the most astounding comic book movies ever. It should be more than just....okay.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Kino Lorber has been releasing a number of renowned Spaghetti Westerns on Region A Blu-ray in the last few years, and now DEATH RIDES A HORSE can be added to the list. The 1967 Italian film stars Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law.
DEATH RIDES A HORSE begins with a harrowing sequence detailing the massacre of a frontier family by bandits. The only survivor is a young boy, and fifteen years later the now-grown Bill (John Phillip Law) seethes for revenge. Bill comes upon a link to his family's killers with the release from jail of the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef). Ryan has his own reasons to find the members of the murderous gang, and he and Bill form an uneasy partnership. The two men wind up besieged at the bandits' Mexican hideout, where a personal revelation further complicates matters.
Many Lee Van Cleef fans consider DEATH RIDES A HORSE to be the actor's best Euro Western not directed by Sergio Leone. The movie wasn't directed by Sergio Corbucci or Sergio Sollima, either....Giulio Petroni helmed this tale, and he did an excellent job. DEATH RIDES A HORSE has a lot in common with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (Luciano Vincenzoni was a screenwriter on both films). The two movies feature flashbacks to a horrific event, two contrasting men after the same group of bandits for their own personal reasons, a climatic shootout at the villains' secret lair, and a major plot twist. The older and more clever gunfighter paired with a younger and more tempestuous character scenario would be a plot point in almost every Spaghetti Western Lee Van Cleef starred in. Van Cleef is perfect as the ultra-cool ex-con Ryan, and he acts as something of a mentor to the vengeance-obsessed Bill. John Phillip Law is very good as Bill, and it's surprising that he didn't appear in more movies of this type. I do have to say that there were times I felt that Law was trying to do a Man With No Name impression.
The supporting cast includes Sergio Leone veterans Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega, and British character actor Anthony Dawson. It would seem unusual for a performer like Dawson to be in a Spaghetti Western, but he does get to participate in a well-staged gunfight with Law, one of the movie's best moments.
DEATH RIDES A HORSE has a few touches of sardonic humor, but overall it is a very grim affair. The opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. Most of the outlandish flourishes one expects from a typical Euro Western are not to be found here. Ennio Morricone's magnificent but doom-laden score extenuates the dour attitude. Mention must be made of Carlo Carlini's cinematography and Eraldo Da Roma's editing, which are both superb.
Kino's Blu-ray of DEATH RIDES A HORSE presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (for some reason the disc case says it is in 1.85:1). I wouldn't call the visual quality spectacular, but it's probably the best this movie is going to look on home video. The main extra is a audio commentary by independent filmmaker Alex Cox. He offers up a lot of info on the movie, comparing it to other Spaghetti Westerns, and he's quite knowledgeable on the locations used. There are a number of stretches where Cox doesn't say anything, as if he's caught up in watching the movie.
For those that do buy this disc (and I would recommend that you do), here's a helpful tidbit--when you get to the menu screen, Ennio Morricone's main theme for the film plays out in its entirety in full-bodied 5.1 audio.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
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 (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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.