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
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
As many of you know, Claude Rains made a memorable appearance in one of the greatest films ever made--LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The last theatrical feature Rains starred in before LAWRENCE was....BATTLE OF THE WORLDS.
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is a 1961 Italian science-fiction film. (The original Italian title was IL PLANETA DEGLI UOMINI SPENTI.) Claude Rains plays the irascible Professor Benson, who tries to save the Earth from being destroyed by a rogue planet. I viewed the movie (in a decent print and in widescreen, no less) on YouTube.
The movie begins with an attractive woman running around an exotic seaside location while a haunting melody plays in the background. At first I thought I was watching a perfume commercial, but the lady, named Eve (Maya Brent), is actually on an island where a scientific research center is located. Eve works on the island along with her fiancee Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini). Fred discovers a strange planet heading straight for Earth. He reveals this to the grumpy Professor Benson, who tells Fred he already knows what is happening through his own calculations. (Benson refers to the planet as "the Outsider".) The planet doesn't crash into Earth, but starts orbiting it instead. The planet has a fleet of deadly flying saucers as a defense system, and Benson and his scientific cohorts must find a way defeat this threat.
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS was directed by cult legend Antonio Margheriti, under his usual pseudonym of Anthony Dawson. Margheriti would go on to direct other Italian sci-fi adventures such as WAR OF THE PLANETS and WILD, WILD PLANET. Those films are far more outlandish than BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. I would even say that most American science-fiction films of the same period are more outlandish. BATTLE OF THE WORLDS has a very straightforward story line, and it doesn't have monsters carrying away damsels in nightgowns. The female characters in the film are dressed rather demurely for a low-budget sci-fi flick--no mini-skirts and high heels--and the women work as equals alongside the men on the island, at a Mars base, and in outer space. The FX sequences are more than adequate for the period. The various shots of the spaceships featured in the story are short and edited quickly, which stops the viewer from getting too good a look at them. Whenever spaceships do appear on the screen, they are backed musically with a strange tonal & choral combination that brings to mind the creepy sound effect used in the original INVADERS FROM MARS.
Claude Rains is without doubt the real star of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS. Instead of going through the motions in a movie that most would consider beneath him, Rains gives the role all he has. His Benson is one of those gruff misanthropes who wind up having more heart than those around him. Rains gets a showcase sequence where he tries to convince the "United Commission" (who he communicates with through video screens) to let him have full power to combat the "Outsider". It's the equivalent of a stage soliloquy. At the climax of BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, Benson joins Fred & Eve on an expedition to the Outsider planet--which allows us to see the 72-year old actor fitted out in a full spacesuit and space helmet. Rains may look out of place in astronaut gear, but it shows how determined his character is to solve the mystery of the Outsider.
The other actors (all dubbed in English in the version I viewed) are okay, but there's no Franco Nero or Barbara Steele in the bunch. (Umberto Orsini does resemble Richard Chamberlain a bit.) There's no main bad guy role either. Take away Claude Rains from BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, and you would have a very different (and very lifeless) film.
What has been written about BATTLE OF THE WORLDS usually falls along the lines of "Poor Claude Rains must have been embarrassed..." Well, Rains had nothing to be embarrassed about. He got lead billing, and he got a juicy role that he could play to the hilt. BATTLE OF THE WORLDS is very cerebral compared to other science-fiction movies made around the same time, which may be one reason why it doesn't have a major geek following. The movie has some interesting concepts, the main one being that the Outsider was the product of a long-dead alien race, and the planet was stuck on a kind of auto-pilot. (The "Dead Aliens leaving the lights on" plot has been used in several famous TV shows and movies.) BATTLE OF THE WORLDS seems to have fallen into public domain purgatory, and one wishes that a company like Kino would release the movie on a restored Blu-ray. (One thing you have to say about Italian sci-fi movies from the 1960s--they certainly were colorful.) BATTLE OF THE WORLDS isn't on the same level as PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, but it is worth seeking out for science-fiction fans...and especially for anyone who admires the acting ability of Claude Rains.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
It's time for another obscure black & white Italian horror film featuring the undead. This one comes from 1962, and was originally titled LA STRAGE DEI VAMPIRI--the version of it I viewed had the title SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES. (The movie is also known as CURSE OF THE BLOOD GHOULS.)
One would assume that a movie called SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES would have all-out battles between blood-suckers and the living. But the actual story is less ostentatious than that, with very few characters. The plot revolves around 19th Century European newlywed couple Wolfgang (Walter Brandi) and Louise (Graziella Granata), who have taken residence in an old castle. Unfortunately for the pair, a vampire (Dieter Eppler) has decided to hide out in the wine cellar, and he's soon making moves on Louise. Wolfgang is at a loss in dealing with his wife's new sickness, and he goes to get help from the ironically named Dr. Nietzsche (Luigi Batzella), who just happens to be an expert in vampirism (the vampire hunter-vampire ratio in 19th Century Europe must have been enormous). By the time Wolfgang and the Doctor get back, Louise has become a full-fledged member of the undead, and now Wolfgang is next on the list to be converted.
SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES has an unusual opening scene--we see a male & female vampire on the run from torch wielding villagers, the type of sequence usually shown at the end of a horror film. The female vampire is dispatched by the mob, while the male gets away, to hide in the newlywed's castle after the main titles are shown. We get no backstory whatsoever on the male vampire--he doesn't even get a proper name in the story, so we don't even know if he's a count, a baron, or just a working-class guy. He does wear a red-lined cape and a frilly white dress shirt, so at least he's decked out properly. The bad news is that he also is wearing about 20 pounds of makeup, which makes him resemble either a silent movie actor or a 1970s glitter rock star. With his mediocre facial job, it's hard to take Dieter Eppler seriously as a supernatural menace.
Graziella Granata in SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES
The real star of SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is the raven-haired & voluptuous Graziella Granata as Louise. Because of her predicament, Louise spends a lot of time--do I even have to tell you this?--wandering around in the dark wearing a nightgown. But she looks fantastic doing it, and her vampire has far more flair and energy than Eppler's. In most vampire tales, the entire story revolves around saving a beautiful young woman from being vampirzed, whether it be Helen Chandler, Suzan Farmer, Veronica Carlson, etc. The interesting twist in SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is that the young female lead is already lost to the undead before the vampire hunter can get down to business. Right after her transformation, Louise is putting the moves on her grieving husband, and she shows no remorse in doing so.
There's no doubt that SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES was influenced by Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA--at one point Dr. Nietzsche emerges from off-screen and sticks a cross in a vampire's face, just like Peter Cushing's Van Helsing did. Dr. Nietzsche has a lot of other things in common with Cushing's Van Helsing, such as going on about how he has spent his life investigating and tracking down the undead. Luigi Batzella certainly can't match Peter Cushing in the acting department, but he does make a good vampire hunter, and he brings a strong mature presence to the film.
Walter Brandi was a very underwhelming vampire in THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. Here, he gets to play a role that suits him much better, a David Manners-type of character. You feel sorry for poor Wolfgang, but at the same time you can't help but think that the guy wouldn't be able to take out the trash, let alone destroy a supernatural creature.
SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES was written and directed by Roberto Mauri. Mauri lays on the atmosphere when he can, but the film does drag a bit. Having seen this film on YouTube and on a low-priced Retromedia DVD, I have to wonder how much more appreciation I would have for it if I had viewed it in a pristine condition. (The version I saw was dubbed, which didn't help matters much.) The movie forms a sort of loose trilogy along with THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA and THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, but I would rate those two movies higher because there are more interesting things going on in them (and they also have a lot more gorgeous women). SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES is an okay vampire flick, nothing more.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
This post is inspired by my recent viewing of LOGAN. While preparing it, I realized that there are not as many great superhero movie portrayals as I thought there were. Despite the popularity of the comic book movie genre, most folks seem to complain about certain actors playing certain comic book characters than commend their performances. I chalk that up to the Culture of Geekdom.
I limited myself to choosing from people who played an actual comic book character in a theatrical feature. That means I couldn't, for example, pick Christopher Walken as Max Shreck in BATMAN RETURNS. (That also means no TV portrayals.) Whenever I write one of these lists, I always seem to forget someone, and I probably will here. If you think I have overlooked a certain performance, any type of feedback will be appreciated.
1. Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine in multiple films
I firmly believe that the entire 21st Century era of comic book films started with X-MEN. The breakout performance in that film was Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine. The quality of the X-Men film series has varied over the years--but Jackman's Wolverine has remained constantly popular. I'm sure someone else will play the character someday--but I sure don't envy the person who will have to do it.
2. Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman in BATMAN (1966)
Before you even cry foul, remember that West did appear as Batman in a theatrically released film...and also remember that West still has had more impact in the role than all the other Batman actors put together.
3. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America in multiple films
The steadfast, brave, and honest Captain, as portrayed by Evans, is a rarity among all the "troubled" superheroes we have seen on the big screen in the last few years. Evans has accomplished something rare these days in making a decent man believable without coming off as too goody-goody or stuck up. It sure would be nice if DC/Warners could show Superman the same way....
4. Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach in WATCHMEN
I'll state once again that WATCHMEN is one of the greatest comic book movies of all time. All of the Watchmen are intriguing in their own right, but for my money Rorschach is the most compelling character of all. Haley was perfect in showing the inner rage of a man who can't stand the society he lives in, yet still risks his life to protect it.
5. Jack Nicholson as the Joker in BATMAN (1989)
Yes, Heath Ledger was fantastic in THE DARK KNIGHT, but Nicholson was the real star of Tim Burton's BATMAN...so much so that the Bat villains have been overshadowing the Caped Crusader on the big screen ever since.
6. Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man in multiple films
If Hugh Jackman's performance as Wolverine was of vital importance to the comic book movie genre as a whole, then so was Robert Downey's performance to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If the first IRON MAN movie had bombed, there may not even have been a MCU. When I first heard that Downey was going to be Iron Man, I thought the movie was going to be one big joke--but the actor got the last laugh, reviving his career and making Tony Stark his signature performance.
7. Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent in multiple films
Reeve was the ultimate Man of Steel--it's sad he didn't have the opportunity to be in the type of comic book movies they make today. The reason I don't rate Reeve's performance higher is that I've always thought his Clark Kent was far too nerdy.
Honorable Mention: Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier in multiple films; Ian McKellen as Eric Lensherr/Magneto in multiple films; Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in multiple films; Gary Oldman as James Gordon in multiple films; Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS
Sunday, March 5, 2017
There's been a huge amount of buzz about LOGAN ever since the project was announced, and having now seen the film, I can say that it lives up to the hype. Director James Mangold (who also provided the story) fashions a tale that is unlike any other comic book movie, a tale that has a low-budget 1970s sensibility. I would even go as far to say that LOGAN is the HELL OR HIGH WATER of superhero films.
Set in the year 2029, LOGAN has Hugh Jackman's iconic Wolverine reduced to being a limo driver in a bleak world where mutants are all but extinct. Logan has hidden Professor Charles Xavier out in Mexico--the 90 year old Professor X is suffering from the onset of dementia, and his powerful brain has now become a dangerous weapon. Logan intends to take the Professor and go even deeper into hiding--but he's forced to help a mysterious young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), a mutant who has a few things in common with the Wolverine. The result is a brutal, bloody tale that has little in common with the CGI fueled comic book spectaculars we've been inundated with over the last decade.
LOGAN has very little to do with the rest of the X MEN movie series, but at the same time the story rests on our familiarity with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier. We've watched these fine actors play these roles for the last 17 years, and seeing their characters' condition in LOGAN can't help but make us feel for them. Logan and Xavier have become haunted, broken down old men, merely existing in a world that no longer needs them. I've never taken seriously all those movie awards, but if you are going to give those things out, the performances of Jackman and Stewart in LOGAN need to be recognized. I believe that Hugh Jackman as Wolverine might be the greatest performer/comic book character combination in screen history. (Do I have a list coming up of my favorite comic book movie performances? Mmmmm.....could be...)
Someone else who deserves awards consideration is Dafne Keen as Laura. I don't want to discuss too much about her character, so as not to spoil the film for those who haven't seen it. Suffice to say that the young girl better be prepared to spend her future as a geek icon.
LOGAN has great acting, but it also has a great feel to it as well. Despite being set in 2029, the movie seems far more realistic than superhero films set in the present. There's a texture here, a sense of actual locations. There's no entire city blocks being destroyed, no outlandish villains standing in a hurricane of electrical energy. Some may complain that LOGAN isn't as "fun" as the typical comic book movie, but James Mangold didn't want to make that type of story, and he should get credit for that. There are all sorts of comic book stories, and there should be all sorts of comic book films. Many have compared LOGAN to a Western, and that opinion certainly does apply--in fact, one of the most famous Western movies of all time is heavily referenced in it.
For those wondering how dark the film really is....it is definitely a hard R. This is not a movie for kids, and even some adults might be turned off by some of the things the 11 year old Laura does. There won't be any Happy Meal toys tied to this picture.
LOGAN isn't perfect--despite it's not being a blockbuster, it still lasts more than two hours, and it loses a bit of steam right before the climax. But it has to be ranked among the best of the comic book films. It is a fitting valedictory for Hugh Jackman in his (supposed) last outing as the Wolverine. Jackman's Logan is one of the pillars on which the entire culture of geekdom that rules the entertainment industry has been built, and the actor should be recognized for that. More importantly, LOGAN proves that not all comic book movies have to be the same. Hopefully other directors and writers will take note of this and go out of their way to move the comic book movie genre into different directions.
Friday, March 3, 2017
I'm not a fan of the "making fun of bad movies" industry--the Golden Turkey books, Mystery Science Theater, etc.. A major part of that is I have too much respect for anyone who manages to make a theatrical film, no matter how it turns out. If you know my cinematic tastes, you'll know that many of the films I watch are somewhat...unusual, to say the least. Despite the rise of Geek Culture, there are still plenty of folks out there who believe that any subject involving the weird or the fantastic is bound to be crap. One of the things my Dad always says is, "Why can't you watch movies that have real stuff that happens in them??" Well, if I wanted reality, I'd look out the window--or go on the internet, and read the posts of everyone who is whining and moaning about whatever is going on in the world today.
A bad fantastic movie can still wind up being far more entertaining than a mainstream one. For me, the worst thing a movie can do is be boring, and most so-called worst movies ever are at least not boring. And that brings us to the subject of the 1944 very low-budget VOODOO MAN, starring Bela Lugosi. Even lovers of strange cinema find VOODOO MAN to be terrible--but what is the line between strange and terrible?
VOODOO MAN is one of the notorious "Monogram Nine", a series of films made by that poverty row company which starred Bela Lugosi. The Monogram Nine are well known to most film buffs due to the fact that most of the titles have been readily available in public domain home video formats. When I started collecting movies in the late 1980s, the Lugosi Monogram features could be found wherever VHS tapes were sold. (If you consider other Lugosi titles such as WHITE ZOMBIE, THE HUMAN MONSTER, and his collaborations with Ed Wood, there's no doubt that Bela is the all-time Prince of Public Domain.) Many use the Monogram films as an example of how far Bela's star had fallen in the 1940s, but these pictures gave him far more to do--and far better roles--than he was given by Universal at the same time. These movies may seem ridiculous to some, but because of their easy to see status, and the fact that Bela starred in them, they've had a longer shelf life than many bigger-budgeted, more reputable films made during the same period.
VOODOO MAN stars Lugosi as Dr. Richard Marlowe, a man who is trying to bring back his wife from the dead with the power of voodoo. The doctor is assisted in this endeavor by a man named Nicholas (George Zucco), who runs a nearby gas station. Yes, Zucco, the erudite and distinguished British character actor, is in charge of a gas station. (If you think that's the worst indignity Zucco is going to suffer in this film....you're wrong.) Marlowe also has at his command a half-witted half-wit named Toby (John Carradine), a creepy housekeeper, and a brutish looking fellow named Grego (if this movie had been made ten years later, Grego would have been played by Tor Johnson). Nicholas, during his shift at the gas station, waylays attractive young women toward Marlowe's house, where the doctor has an electrical device that shorts out their car's engines. (Marlowe sees them coming through his very own closed-circuit TV monitors.) Toby and Grego then kidnap the women and take them to Marlowe's cellar, where the doctor and Nicholas engage in a voodoo ceremony to attempt to transfer the girls' mental faculties to the comatose Mrs. Marlowe.
Despite Nicholas' solemn declaration that "Ramboona never fails", the voodoo ceremonies get no response from Mrs. Marlowe. They do, however, leave the girls used in the ceremony as zombies themselves--and Marlowe keeps them in the basement, in their own separate compartments, dressed in white robes. (If VOODOO MAN had been made decades later, you can bet there would have been a more prurient reason for Marlowe keeping the sleeping beauties around.) The missing girls attract media attention, which is shown through the typical newspaper headlines we've all seen in hundreds of B movies. Marlowe gets his comeuppance when he captures the cousin (Louise Currie) of the fiancee (Wanda McKay) of a hack screenwriter (Michael Ames).
Describing the plot of VOODOO MAN really doesn't do the film justice--it needs to be seen. Lugosi, in his goatee and formal evening clothes, looks very refined, and he even underplays the role of Marlowe. (Director William Beaudine constantly lights Bela's face from underneath, giving him a sinister undertone.) One would expect Bela to ham it up in a role like this, but he doesn't--it's actually one of his best poverty row performances. Maybe Lugosi toned it down because he was surrounded by so many oddball characters. John Carradine as Toby makes Lon Chaney Jr's Lennie look like a nuclear scientist. Carradine does all sorts of weird stuff here, talking to the zombiefied girls as if they were pets, and stroking their hair (I'm convinced that Carradine ad-libbed during the entire picture). George Zucco is best known for his incisive and subtle villainy in dozens of movies, but here (when not working at a gas station) he has to wear a silly-looking robe, put on a sillier-looking headdress, wear face paint, and make prayers to the supposed all-mighty voodoo god Ramboona. It's bad enough that poor Zucco has to spout gibberish, but when he starts making wild gyrations and faces directly at the camera, you can't help but wonder what the actor was thinking at those moments.
Monogram's horror films never worried about logic, and VOODOO MAN appears to have none at all. Lugosi says that he wife has been dead for 22 years, yet she's far from a rotting corpse--she's a attractive woman in her early 20s, wearing one of those flowing white robes (did Marlowe order a bunch of those robes at wholesale?). Mrs. Marlowe is also able to wander around (Louise Currie's character gets to amble about while in her zombie state as well), and these scenes bear a small (very, very small) resemblance to I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Sarcastic folks might come to the conclusion that since Lugosi has a pretty young wife who doesn't talk, and shows no emotion whatsoever, he shouldn't complain.
The "good guys" in the film are even more inadequate than Lugosi & Co. Michael Ames, in the David Manners role, is just as useless as David Manners. Louise Currie and Wanda McKay (who both co-starred with Lugosi in other titles in the Monogram Nine) are attractive, but their roles give them nothing to work with. There's a country sheriff and deputy who make Andy Taylor and Barney Fife seem like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. (Despite the fact that the missing girls were last seen on a road near Marlowe's house, no one seems to have bothered to investigate the place.)
The ending has the sheriff interrupting one of the voodoo ceremonies to save Wanda McKay and Louise Currie (the screenwriter guy tried, but he got knocked out--figures). Lugosi raises a voodoo knife, but the sheriff shoots him dead. Mrs. Marlowe also expires (maybe--she didn't seem dead in the first place). The girls all go back to normal, and the screenwriter goes back to the studio, having written up the events as a new story. He suggests that it's perfect for that one actor...Bela Lugosi!
It would appear that VOODOO MAN is one of those bad movies people love to make fun of. But let's compare it to another low-budget chiller made about the same time, Universal's 1943 film NIGHT MONSTER. That movie also stars Bela Lugosi, along with Lionel Atwill. Both men are basically wasted in their roles, and the story is okay, nothing more. In VOODOO MAN Lugosi is deservedly the real star, and even though the roles John Carradine and George Zucco play may be embarrassing--at least they get to do something. VOODOO MAN is far goofier than NIGHT MONSTER--but it is a goofiness that draws attention and stays in the memory.
It is far more satisfying to me to write a post about VOODOO MAN than the latest CGI spectacular that has A list stars and a $200 million+ budget. Many of those CGI blockbusters I wind up forgetting about a couple days after I've seen them. Technically, VOODOO MAN is a bad movie--but I'd still rather watch it than anything George Clooney has been in recently.