Wednesday, May 24, 2017
In honor of the 40th Anniversary of the original STAR WARS, here are 40 things I love about the movie. These are listed in no particular order, except for No. 1.
40. The way everyone pronounces Alderaan a different way--it's either Alder-RON or Alder-RAN.
39. The R2 unit decked out in New York Jets colors that we saw at the Rebel Base on the Yavin moon.
38. The three drunk Jawas sitting out in front of the Mos Eisley cantina.
37. "THANK THE MAKER!! THIS OIL BATH IS GOING TO FEEL SO GOOD!!"
36. The opening sequence. Still gives me chills every time I see that Star Destroyer fly over.
35. The sound of the lightsabers.
34. The fact that Han shot first.
33. Carrie Fisher's attempt at a English accent during certain parts of the film.
32. The Millennium Falcon.
31. How whiny Luke sounds throughout the movie.
30. Darth Vader's personal TIE fighter.
29. "That's no moon....it's a space station."
28. The way our heroes are totally dry about a minute after getting out of the trash compactor.
27. Every single note of John Williams' score.
26. "Evacuate!!?? In our moment of triumph!!??"
24. Gaffi sticks.
23. "When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master."
22. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
21. Vader putting Admiral Motti in his place.
20. The end credits font.
19. The fact that Darth Vader wears a cape, even though it is totally unnecessary.
18. The two stormtroopers bull%^&*$#@+ while Obi-Wan is turning off the tractor beam.
17. Porkins....never forget his sacrifice.
16. There's about a thousand stormtroopers in this movie, and 99% of them are basically useless.
15. The uniform of the TIE fighter pilots.
14. "Boring conversation anyway..."
13. The Imperial Star Destroyer.
12. The idea that, in this movie at least, there is sound in space.
11. "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper??"
10. The way Han rolls his eyes when he first meets C-3PO.
9. The way Alec Guinness pauses when Luke asks him, "How did my father die?"
8. "These aren't the droids you're looking for."
7. Every member of the Empire is an arrogant white guy.
6. The seats the Rebel pilots are sitting in during the briefing on how to destroy the Death Star look as if they come from a junior high school.
5. Princess Leia's lip gloss.
4. Gold Leader's speaking pattern.
3. The scene where Luke stares out at the twin suns of Tatooine.
2. The fact that I have contributed immensely to George Lucas' personal fortune.
1. And the No.1 thing I love about STAR WARS is....I love EVERYTHING about STAR WARS!
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Thursday, May 25, is the exact 40th anniversary of the original theatrical release of STAR WARS. How can we celebrate such a momentous occasion? One way is to hold a Tweetathon--which means everyone gets out their personal home video copies of STAR WARS, starts them all at the same time, and goes on twitter and makes all sorts of brilliant comments while the movie is playing.
This Tweetathon is being co-hosted by my good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy. I can assure you that Josh feels the same way about STAR WARS as I do--the both of us could probably tweet ever single line of dialogue, in order, without watching the movie. Josh and I have held a Tweetathon before--we covered THE GORGON, and I think about two or three people participated. Hopefully the 40th anniversary of STAR WARS will attract more attendees.
I assume that nearly everyone has STAR WARS on DVD or Blu-ray--and if you don't, what is wrong with you?? For the purposes of this Tweetathon, I am going to be playing the Blu-ray version of STAR WARS that was released in 2011. I realize that this is not the version of the film that came out 40 years ago. I do have that version on DVD--when the Star Wars Trilogy was re-released on home video in 2006, the original theatrical versions of the films were included as a "bonus". I know that many folks do not have these DVDs, which is why I'll be playing the Special Edition of the film. I'd like to get as many people involved as possible, so whatever version of the film you have, you are more than welcome to join in.
The start time for this Tweetathon will be 8 PM, American Eastern Standard Time, on Thursday, May 25. The hashtag we will be using on our tweets will be #SW40. Josh's twitter handle is @JoshKennedy39, and mine is @cushinglee. If you have any questions or suggestions about the Tweetahon, please leave a comment below.
I'm really excited about this project--I think I can speak for Josh when I declare that this movie has had more influence on us than any other type of filmed production. So please join us on twitter for the 40th anniversary of the greatest movie ever made--and may the Force be with you.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
THE INDIAN FIGHTER (1955) is a Cinemascope Western starring Kirk Douglas, with a fantastic cast of supporting actors--Walter Matthau, Lon Chaney Jr., Alan Hale Jr., Hank Worden, Elisha Cook Jr., and several other faces that will be familiar to fans of American retro television. Kino has just released the movie on Blu-ray. I had never seen it before, and while it's more of a B type of Western, it does have its moments.
Lon Chaney Jr. and Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas plays Johnny Hawks, a frontier scout in the post-Civil War American West. Johnny tries to keep the peace between a band of Sioux Indians and the settlers at a nearby fort. Johnny attempts to lead a wagon train through Sioux country, but he's distracted by the Sioux Chief's beautiful daughter (Elsa Martinelli) and foiled by a couple of vicious scalawags (Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney) who are after gold.
THE INDIAN FIGHTER was directed by Andre De Toth, who is best known for helming the 3D classic HOUSE OF WAX. De Toth did make a number of very good Westerns, including a few with Randolph Scott. He uses the Cinemascope format very well, and makes excellent use of the movie's Oregon locations. The story moves along quickly, and a "Indians attacking the fort" sequence at the end of the film is impressively mounted.
Kirk Douglas is intensely energetic as usual, leaping on and off of horses, and of course, fighting Indians (at one point he takes part in a Native American version of a joust). It's a bit hard, though, to really like Douglas' character because of the way he "romances" Elsa Martinelli's native girl. He basically assaults her--and she responds to it, bringing up all sorts of unpleasant connotations. It doesn't help that the Italian Martinelli seems more like a peasant girl from Rome instead of a true Native American. The beginning of the film features Martinelli skinny-dipping, with Douglas looking on approvingly.
This is Walter Matthau's second film, and he's very devious as the "brains" between him and his partner, Lon Chaney Jr. Lon plays another of his brutish simpleton roles (at least this time he gets some dialogue). The story puts the blame on Matthau and Lon Jr. for all the trouble--they are the ones who get the Sioux riled up by trying to find gold on native land. 21st Century viewers may be dismayed by non-Native American actors "playing injun", but this movie is a lot more sympathetic toward the Sioux than one would expect from the title. This was the first production made by Kirk Douglas' own company, and his ex-wife Diana Douglas has a role as a settler interested in Johnny Hawks.
Kino presents THE INDIAN FIGHTER in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. The movie looks very good. The major extra is an audio commentary from Toby Roan. He gives out many production factoids about the film and the actors, but not much critical analysis (there's also a lot of silent stretches).
I would say that THE INDIAN FIGHTER is an above-average Western, but not a great one. The movie's best attributes are the glorious locations photographed in Cinemascope. The script has a lot of cliches, but a few interesting touches as well (Ben Hecht, of all people, is one of the credited writers). It's the type of movie best appreciated by film buffs.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
What do you call STAR WARS? What I mean is...how do you refer to the 1977 film that was originally released by that name?
The reason I ask this is that I have noticed more and more people on social media call the film "A New Hope" or even "Episode IV". When STAR WARS is shown over broadcast television, my onscreen cable guide refers to it as "STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE". Technically, the movie's "official" name is now STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE.
But that's not the name of the movie I saw back in 1977.
There wasn't any "Episode IV: A New Hope" before the opening crawl of the original STAR WARS. That was added when the movie was re-released in 1981. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was the first Star Wars film to receive an episode number. Apparently George Lucas wanted to put the Episode IV sub-title on the original Star Wars, but Fox executives were worried that moviegoers would be confused and wonder about the first three episodes.
Now, from my personal experience, I don't remember anyone referring to the Star Wars films by episode number in the 1980s. STAR WARS was just called STAR WARS, EMPIRE was EMPIRE, etc.. Of course there was only three movies to deal with back then (it's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when folks were wondering if there would ever be another Star Wars film made). Social media didn't exist, but magazines like STARLOG did, and they never used the episode numbers.
It's my recollection that major use of the episode numbers came into being when the Special Editions of the Star Wars films were released in 1997. That's when the A NEW HOPE title started to gain traction, and when Lucasfilm began to heavily use it, The Star Wars prequels officially integrated the episode numbers into their titles--if you look at the original theatrical poster for THE PHANTOM MENACE, it is called STAR WARS EPISODE I--THE PHANTOM MENACE.
I've never gotten into the swing of using the episode numbers. I say ATTACK OF THE CLONES, not Episode II. If someone says to me, "I really can't stand Episode VI", I have to think about what movie that person is referring to. Adding an episode number to an already existing title seems a bit unwieldy to me, and calling a movie "Episode Something" seems generic.
The real reason I don't use "A New Hope" is that my favorite movie of all time--the one I first saw in 1977--wasn't called that. It was called STAR WARS, and that's the title I'll always use. Mind you, I'm not saying that my opinion is the right one--you can call the movie ERNEST VS. BLACULA for all I care. It's just my personal preference.
I would assume that younger Star Wars fans are more apt to use the episode numbers or the A NEW HOPE title. Most of the "kids" have probably never seen the original version of STAR WARS (which is a shame). Their version of STAR WARS is the Special Edition. The subtitle EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE has been used frequently their entire lives, and I'm sure most of them believe that is the proper name. The thing is, I feel the special edition of STAR WARS is a different film from the original. So maybe it is proper to refer to the Special Edition as A NEW HOPE.
But if that is true, then George Lucas just didn't rework scenes from one of the most famous movies of all time--he managed to change its title. As a old horror/science fiction film fan, I'm used to movies with multiple titles--but this is something totally different. I can't think of any other hugely successful movie that has been called a alternate title decades after its original release. I understand this was the filmmaker's decision, and I'm not questioning the right of that decision. I'm merely pointing out, from a film buff's perspective, how unusual that is. You couldn't imagine say, GONE WITH THE WIND or THE GODFATHER having an alternate title.
I was hoping, since this year marks the 40th anniversary of the original theatrical release of STAR WARS, that the 1977 version of the film would finally be released on Blu-ray. It doesn't look like that's going to happen...it may not ever happen. That means the Special Edition of that film is going to wind up being the only edition. And the A NEW HOPE title is going to be considered the true title.
If you want to call the movie EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE, that's fine. I choose not to call it that. Am I being silly in my decision? Maybe. But when a movie like STAR WARS has had such a major impact on one's life, that person tends to have strong feelings about it. Besides, I could get really anal and start using BLUE HARVEST instead of RETURN OF THE JEDI.
*What do you call STAR WARS? Leave comments below.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) has long been a staple of public domain home video. The fact that it features stars such as Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, and Dwight Frye has given several fly-by-night companies the incentive to slap a copy of it onto a videotape or a disc. Those cheap versions are now rendered obsolete by a new Blu-ray of the movie from The Film Detective, restored from 35mm elements preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Saying "it's like seeing it for the very first time" may seem like hyperbole, but in this case it is true. This presentation of THE VAMPIRE BAT blows away anything else available. The picture is sharper and more defined, and the black & white contrast is excellent. This Blu-ray isn't 100% visually perfect--this is a 80+ year old movie, after all--but that's alright, because it does not have the overly processed look of some restored older titles. The sound quality is also improved slightly. During the part of the story where Dwight Frye's creepy Herman is chased by torch-wielding villagers, the torches have been tinted a fiery orange (apparently this was done on some prints of THE VAMPIRE BAT in 1933). It is an intriguing, eerie effect, and at least there is some historical justification for it.
Watching this Blu-ray gave me a better appreciation for director Frank Strayer's camera set-ups. The movie still has a low-budget sensibility to it--it was produced by a company called Majestic instead of a major Hollywood studio--but it plays a bit better in this restored print. The improved visuals still do not cover up some plot problems. Even though the movie is only 63 minutes long, it's not until the very end that Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray are allowed to go into full-blown mad doctor and scream queen mode. Most of the film follows Dwight Frye's red herring Herman ("BATS...SOFT!"), and Maude Eburne, who plays Fay Wray's comic relief spinster Aunt, gets way too much screen time. (If you're the type of film buff who is annoyed by Una O'Connor, Maude Eburne will really drive you nuts.) Most old monster movie fans tend to overlook the flaws of THE VAMPIRE BAT and look upon it fondly, probably because they are so familiar with it. (If you'd like to read more about my thoughts on the film, please check out my February 2016 blog post for "The Mad Scientist Blogathon", in which I wrote about Lionel Atwill's performance.)
I have to point out that this Blu-ray disc is Made-On-Demand, instead of a regularly pressed one. (I experienced no playback problems with my copy.) The back cover of the disc package says that this Blu-ray is Region Free. The Film Detective has provided two bonus features, one of them being a very short interview with Gregory Hesselberg, the son of Melvyn Douglas. The other is an audio commentary by cult independent film producer Sam Sherman. Sherman proves that he is a knowledgeable film buff, and he does offer up a few interesting nuggets of info, but his talk is very rambling, and it strays away from the movie several times. A Greg Mank or a Tom Weaver would have been better. Ironically, Weaver himself recently posted on the Classic Horror Film Board that it wouldn't have been worth featuring either Mank or him on this Blu-ray, because there's isn't anything new that can be said about THE VAMPIRE BAT. Personally, I think Mank or Weaver could have easily spent 63 minutes successfully discussing the film.
THE VAMPIRE BAT isn't on the level of most of the Universal Monster Classics made during the same time period, but the cast and subject matter make it worthwhile viewing for those who are fans of retro horror films. The main treat of this Blu-ray is seeing it in a fine, restored print.
Saturday, May 6, 2017
.....the cast list might have looked like this.
Luke Skywalker--Simon Ward
Princess Leia--fill in the name of your favorite Hammer Hottie
Han Solo--Oliver Reed
Obi-Wan Kenobi--Andre Morell
Grand Moff Tarkin--Peter Cushing
Darth Vader--Christopher Lee
Uncle Owen--Michael Ripper
Aunt Beru--Freda Jackson
Mos Eisley cantina bartender--Duncan Lamont
Admiral Tagge--George Woodbridge
Admiral Motti--Michael Gough
Red Leader--Charles Lloyd Pack
Gold Leader--Peter Madden
Porkins--Francis De Wolff
Stormtrooper who bumps his head--Barry Andrews
Friday, May 5, 2017
.....the cast list might have looked like this.
Luke Skywalker--Robert Redford
Princess Leia--Natalie Wood
Han Solo--Steve McQueen
Obi-Wan Kenobi--Ralph Richardson
Grand Moff Tarkin--Lee Van Cleef
Darth Vader--Christopher Lee
Thursday, May 4, 2017
.....the cast list might have looked like this.
Luke Skywalker--Paul Newman
Princess Leia--Debbie Reynolds
Han Solo--Kirk Douglas
Obi-Wan Kenobi--William Powell
Grand Moff Tarkin--James Mason
Darth Vader--James Arness
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
.....the cast list might have looked like this.
Luke Skywalker--Van Johnson
Princess Leia--Ida Lupino
Han Solo--Humphrey Bogart
Obi-Wan Kenobi--Walter Huston
Grand Moff Tarkin--Claude Rains
Darth Vader--Lon Chaney Jr.
C-3PO--Edward Everett Horton
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
.....the cast list might have looked like this.
Luke Skywalker--James Stewart
Princess Leia--Myrna Loy
Han Solo--Clark Gable
Obi-Wan Kenobi--Lionel Barrymore
Grand Moff Tarkin--Basil Rathbone
Darth Vader--Boris Karloff
Monday, May 1, 2017
The 1959 Italian science fiction/horror film CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER may not be magnificent, but the Arrow Blu-ray of this title certainly is. Jam packed with relevant extras, CALTIKI gets the type of treatment that most mainstream box office hits do not rate.
CALTIKI was a collaboration between two famed cult filmmakers: Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava. The movie's direction is officially credited to Freda, but he left before the end of production, and Bava took over. As director of photography and creator of special effects, Bava's contribution to the film was probably more than Freda's in any event. CALTIKI is a low-budget monster flick, but a master of the fantastic like Bava makes much more out of it than a viewer would expect.
The story of CALTIKI is set in Mexico, where a scientific expedition investigating Mayan ruins has inadvertently unearthed a gruesome creature called "Caltiki" after a Mayan Goddess. Caltiki resembles a slimy mass of pulsating flesh, and it has the ability to divide and grow to enormous proportions. Dr. John Fielding (John Merivale), the leader of the expedition, discovers that fire is the only force that can defeat Caltiki....but can he save his wife and child in time?
CALTIKI is a wild fusion of giant monster sci-fi and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Radiation plays a part in Caltiki's reign of terror, as it usually does in this type of story, but the idea that the creature has lived for eons, and may have been the reason for the destruction of the Mayan race, brings a mythic tone to the proceedings. The movie is very reminiscent of similar films such as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, X THE UNKNOWN, and of course THE BLOB. I also believe that THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON--in which a group of white English-speaking scientists disturb a legendary monster residing in a hidden Latin American grotto--may have been an inspiration for CALTIKI as well. Bava's sublime black & white photography also brings a touch of Universal Gothic, as does Roberto Nicolosi's music.
CALTIKI is rather gory compared to other films of its type made during the same period. The monster literally shreds human beings to the bone, and it turns one of the members of the expedition, played by Gerard Haerter, into a human monster. The actual Caltiki was made of tripe, and as it slithers and writhes its way through the film, there's a disturbing aspect to it. The movie has a few drawbacks--even at only 76 minutes, there's more than a few scenes that feel like padding. The dialogue (in both English and Italian versions) is very clunky, and leading actors John Merivale and Didi Sullivan are somewhat bland (Didi is rather attractive). Gerard Haerter can't help but steal the film from all the other human performers, since he has the showiest role. The real star of CALTIKI is without doubt Mario Bava. The practical effects he whipped up for this film may seem quaint to audiences of today, but when one takes into consideration what he had--and didn't have--to work with, Bava has to be looked upon as a true creative genius of cinema.
Arrow Video brings us a fantastic, sharp as a pin print of CALTIKI (with Italian credits), presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. CALTIKI is one of those features that seemed to be only available on YouTube or grey market home video, so Arrow's version has to be considered the definitive one. The movie has both Italian and English voice tracks, along with English subtitles. A full-frame presentation of the film is included, along with an alternate U.S. credit sequence, and a original U.S. trailer.
Arrow gives us two audio commentaries from writers Troy Howarth and Tim Lucas. Two commentaries may seem like overkill, and there is some overlap between the discussions....but both talks are welcome and informative. Both men have written books about Mario Bava, and they are both experts on Italian fantastic cinema. Listening to both commentaries will give one just about all the information that is needed about CALTIKI. There's also a short interview with the prolific Kim Newman, who places CALTIKI in context with other fantastic films of the 1950s. Luigi Cozzi gives a short discussion on the film, and Stefano Della Casa briefly talks about Riccardo Freda. A 36-page booklet is included, which has essays about CALTIKI by Kat Ellinger, Roberto Curti, and Tim Lucas, and stills and poster art from the film. As usual with Arrow releases, a DVD version of CALTIKI is part of the package, along with a reversible cover sleeve.
Arrow has pulled out all the stops for this disc. Some may ask, "Is a movie like CALTIKI worth it?" I say, "Why not?" For me, inside knowledge on a production like CALTIKI is far more interesting than the typical fluff pieces trotted out for the average modern-day blockbuster. I have a feeling this Blu-ray is going to wind up on my annual top five list at the end of the year.
Sunday, April 30, 2017
One of the greatest romantic comedies of all time gets the Criterion treatment. WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942) is the very first collaboration between screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and many believe it is the best.
When one watches WOMAN OF THE YEAR, it's hard to believe that Tracy & Hepburn had never even met one another before they appeared in this film. Their chemistry together is perfect, and they work so naturally together you'd think they had been doing it for years. They remained an on and off screen couple until Tracy's death in 1967.
It doesn't take an intellectual with a film studies degree to articulate why Tracy & Hepburn were one of the best movie couples. The Midwestern-born, plain-spoken Tracy and the East Coast high-brow Hepburn were the ultimate example of opposites attract. Spencer Tracy is one of my favorite actors, but I have to admit that I've never been a huge Katherine Hepburn fan. I've always respected her acting talent, which was considerable....but she was too theatrical for me, too contrived, too....Hepburnish?? But Tracy made Hepburn appealing, and Hepburn made Tracy seem romantic. Tracy was also a strong enough personality to put Hepburn in her place, and Hepburn was a strong enough personality to give it right back to him.
The storyline for WOMAN OF THE YEAR seems fairly generic today--regular guy sportswriter and internationally renowned political columnist fall in love, and deal with the realities of being together. Literally hundreds of other movies and sitcoms have used the same premise since. It's what Tracy & Hepburn--and director George Stevens--do with the material that separates it from the many imitations that would follow. The comic timing in this film is amazing. Tracy's facial reactions are on a level with those of Oliver Hardy.
If there is a detriment to WOMAN OF THE YEAR, it may be the climax, which has Hepburn disastrously trying to prove she can be a "proper" wife to Tracy. I'm sure many viewers today with a certain political agenda might grit their teeth while watching the ending. Many of the extras on the Blu-ray point out that this climax was filmed to replace another sequence because a number of female members in the test audiences felt Hepburn needed to be knocked off her high horse. I find the ending funny, but I think it kind of misses the point--Hepburn's character's problems at being a wife have little to do with whether she can cook.
What makes Criterion's Blu-ray of WOMAN OF THE YEAR a must-buy are the numerous extras included. The disc features two full-length documentaries: GEORGE STEVENS: A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY, and THE SPENCER TRACY LEGACY: A TRIBUTE BY KATHERINE HEPBURN. I feel A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY is worth the price of the Blu-ray alone--it is one of the best examinations of a classic American movie director's career I have seen. THE SPENCER TRACY LEGACY is important because it was hosted and narrated by Hepburn, and it showcases many film clips from throughout Tracy's film career.
The disc also has new interviews with George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, George Stevens Jr., and writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, who discusses Katherine Hepburn. There's also a 1967 audio interview with George Stevens, and the liner notes feature an essay by Stephanie Zacharek.
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
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??)
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
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 (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
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.
4. DVD Review: THE THREE STOOGES--RARE TREASURES FROM THE COLUMBIA VAULT (posted 1/11/13)
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
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
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.
1969-THE WILD BUNCH
1971-WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
1973-HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
1974-THE GODFATHER PART II
1975-MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL
1976-THE BAD NEWS BEARS
1978-EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE
1980-THE BLUES BROTHERS/THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
1981-RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
1983-RETURN OF THE JEDI
1984-ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
1989-INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
1991-TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY
1992-ARMY OF DARKNESS
1996-STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT
1997-AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY
1998-SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
2000-CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON
2001-THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
2002-THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
2003-THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
2004-HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
2007-THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
2011-X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
2015-MAD MAX: FURY ROAD