Sunday, December 31, 2017
Once again it's time for me to list my top five movie home video releases of 2017. Last year I had trouble coming up with a top five, but this year I could have easily increased this list to ten. And there was plenty of appetizing offerings I didn't purchase--I do have to eat and pay bills, you know.
I've been hearing for the last few years about the "death" of physical media...yet 2017 saw a slew of prime cult home video product. There's a definite market out there for this sort of material, and companies like Arrow, Shout Factory, Severin, and Kino are doing a wonderful job of filling it (and getting a huge chunk of my hard-earned cash in the process). I don't stream (or even field & stream), but I've got discs piled up all over my house, and that's just the way I like it.
As I do every year, I must point out that I purchased all my picks, and that they are all Region A or Region Free.
1. BARRY LYNDON (Blu-ray) from Criterion
Stanley Kubrick's historical epic looks magnificent, and according to Criterion, it is in the correct aspect ratio. What made me choose this as #1 is the fact that this release provides an entire separate disc of extras, thoroughly analyzing the making of the production. I wrote a full review of this in October.
2. CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (DVD/Blu-ray) from Arrow
2017 was a very good year for fans of the Italian Maestro of the fantastic, Mario Bava. His films ERIK THE CONQUEROR, KILL, BABY...KILL!, and ROY COLT AND WINCHESTER JACK all received high-end releases. Arrow's version of CALTIKI makes the list due to its giving a public domain title the respect and extras a major mainstream picture would garner. My review of it was posted in May.
3. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Blu-ray) from Cohen
James Whale's quirky tale of British eccentricity has been given a splendid restoration on this disc, and that fact alone is enough to put it in my top five. I covered this release in October.
4. THE LOST WORLD--1925 version (Blu-ray) from Flicker Alley
Another splendid restoration of one of the most influential fantastic films ever made, jam-packed with pertinent extras. My full review of it was posted in October.
5. THE PINK PANTHER FILM COLLECTION (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory
For the first time ever, all the Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers are included in one set. All six of the films gets its own disc, with numerous extras covering each production. I've never written a proper review of this because I still haven't gotten to most of the extras yet!
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Warning--This post has spoilers.
I still haven't seen THE LAST JEDI for a second time yet, but I've been reading so many articles and reviews of it on the internet in the last week that it feels like I've seen it multiple times. It seems as if everyone wants to express their opinions on the movie....and most of those opinions are not very positive.
It's almost as if Disney and Rian Johnson went out of their way to produce something that would cause angst among the fan community. The thing is, they didn't have to do that. This is a Star Wars movie, after all--people were going to endlessly debate about it no matter how it turned out. But it seems like THE LAST JEDI especially is designed around revelations and spoilers. The overall plot--what there is of it--takes a back seat to the "trending moments".
Because of the way the film is designed, I have to wonder how much I will enjoy it a second time, knowing how things will play out. What I most liked about THE LAST JEDI were the scenes between Rey and Luke, and between Rey and Kylo Ren. And of course I was highly anxious to find out what was going to happen with Leia.
As for all the other stuff, and the new characters?? I wasn't too impressed. The Canto Bight and "Let's figure out how to outrun the First Order" sequences seem to exist for the express purpose of giving Finn and Poe something to do...and that just shows the limitations of these characters. There's no need for me to dump on the Canto Bight scenes--enough folks have done that already. Suffice to say that saying "Canto Bight" is now comparable to saying "Jar Jar Binks".
It's obvious that in THE LAST JEDI Poe is presented as a Han Solo equivalent. The problem is...there is no such thing as a Han Solo equivalent. Poe ain't Han, and Oscar Isaac ain't Harrison Ford. Poe comes off as a jerk in this story, and he even literally gets slapped down. What it comes down to is...are Finn and Poe intriguing enough characters to make you want to see more of them in the next Star Wars film? For me personally, the answer is no.
I could go on whining about the new characters, but let's move on to the revelations. First off...apparently Rey isn't related to anybody important. I say apparently because, how do we know that Kylo isn't lying to her?? I will say that the idea that Rey comes from nowhere or nothing special is a unique concept--but it also makes her character more of a cipher, since we still don't really know all that much about her.
I liked the idea that Kylo and Rey are linked through the Force. I was convinced that because of this, they were related somehow. But if they are not....is Kylo attracted to Rey? I think that would be a good idea to pursue in the next film. I don't think the story will go down that route, but just imagine what plot points can come out of the main bad guy wanting to be with the main heroine.
When Kylo killed Snoke, it certainly surprised me because I thought, "That's one movie too early..." Then I immediately realized that Kylo wasn't turning to the light side, he just wanted overall control. The problem with this twist is that while Vader's killing of the Emperor was the culmination of an entire saga, Kylo's act seems more like an arbitrary "gotcha" moment. We know basically nothing about Snoke (and it looks like we never will), so his death doesn't really have much impact after the initial shock of seeing it.
Due to Carrie Fisher's passing, THE LAST JEDI had a perfect opportunity to let Leia go out in a blaze of glory. I assumed (along with almost everybody else) that this is what was going to happen, and purple-haired Laura Dern would take Leia's place. But wait!! Leia makes it through the whole movie, and it's purple-haired Laura Dern who gets the heroic sacrificial moment. Trust me, it's not like I wanted to see Leia die on-screen...but how are you going to deal with her in the next movie?? As for Leia's "Mary Poppins" moment....it's....unique, I guess.
For me, the whole Luke-Rey sequence was the best thing in the film. It is Mark Hamill who carries THE LAST JEDI. This isn't my version of an older Luke Skywalker (and apparently it isn't Mark Hamill's either), but Hamill makes it work. Did I really need to see an embittered, reclusive Luke? No more than I needed to find out that Han and Leia had a bad marriage and a punk kid, and that the punk kid killed Han. Anyway, the scene where Luke talks about how hypocritical the Jedi were was right on the mark, and I loved Yoda's admonishment of Luke. Some say that the climax, where Luke projects himself into the final battle, was a cheat--but I thought it was very moving, and at least we got a final Luke-Leia scene out of it.
So in the end, the best way I can describe THE LAST JEDI is that it's not terrible, and it's not great. It does leave the saga in a precarious position. Luke could return for a scene or two as a Force ghost, but that's about it for him. Leia probably isn't going to be seen again, and other than Kylo and Rey's relationship, what else do we have? A bunch of characters that, in my opinion, are nothing to get all that excited about. I still think Disney made a mistake in redoing the war between the Empire and the Rebels. This is science-fiction fantasy, after all--there's hundreds of ways they could have gone without having to re-use the same type of spaceships and the same type of elements. There are so many things in both THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI that just merely remind me of similar and better sequences in the Original Trilogy. No, I'm not being a hater. The Original Trilogy will always have special resonance for me, and whatever Disney decides to slap the Star Wars title on is going to suffer in comparison.
Saturday, December 16, 2017
I'm going to have to limit myself on what I can say about THE LAST JEDI in this post, because I don't want to reveal anything.
First off, I think it was better than THE FORCE AWAKENS, a film that I thought was basically a semi-remake of the original STAR WARS. THE LAST JEDI does have some THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK elements to it, and it also recalls RETURN OF THE JEDI.
But I wouldn't call THE LAST JEDI a great movie. It's overlong, and there's a few subplots that drag the story down instead of advancing it. THE LAST JEDI actually kind of reminds me of the several overstuffed, two hours-plus superhero epics we've been inundated with the past few years. There's multiple big-time action set pieces, and there's multiple "We have to perform a certain task in a certain time or we're all doomed" sequences, and there's multiple climaxes.
As for all the major revelations...Writer-Director Rian Johnson leads the audience down a particular path a number of times, only to pull the rug out from under everybody. The question is...is this clever writing or is it just a cheap way to manipulate the viewer?? This film has so many detoured scenarios that I couldn't help but think that a bunch of Disney executives spent a weekend in a boardroom trying to figure out ways to set up the fans. Much of the humor in the movie comes off as ill-timed. (Did George Lucas have some input on the script after all?).
I've heard some on the internet call THE LAST JEDI the most polarizing Star Wars film, and I guess I would agree with that assessment. There's plenty of things here that I enjoyed, and plenty of things that made me go "Huh??". I intend on seeing the movie again soon, and in a week or so I will write a more extensive blog post covering the film.
Thursday, December 14, 2017
The What A Character Blogathon gives me the perfect opportunity to discuss one of my favorite movie supporting players--the English actor Michael Ripper (1913-2000).
Anyone who is a huge fan of Hammer Films (such as myself) can't help but smile whenever Michael Ripper shows up on the screen. The first thing people think of when Hammer is mentioned is of course Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and then all the beautiful ladies featured in their productions, and then maybe the Gothic period atmosphere of the company's many horror films. But Michael Ripper was just as important to Hammer as those aforementioned elements. Ripper appeared in more Hammer movies than any other performer, starting with THE DARK ROAD (AKA THERE IS NO ESCAPE) in 1948. The actor's last acting job for Hammer was in THAT'S YOUR FUNERAL, made in 1972.
If Cushing and Lee represented the aristocracy of Hammerland, and the gorgeous scream queens represented the glamour, then Michael Ripper represented the working class. Ripper, with his everyman's face, was not physically imposing or impressive. But he did have the one main ability that every great character actor must posses--the ability to take a small or supposedly non-important role and make it memorable. Ripper never played a lead in a Hammer horror film, and he never played a mad scientist or a vampire, but he played just about everything else for the company. Very few characters in a Hammer film seemed to actually have to work for a living--but those that did were usually portrayed by Ripper.
Ripper was a very valuable commodity for Hammer. The company's productions were made under a strict budget, and there was no time to waste with difficult or unprofessional talent. Ripper could handle just about any role....well, maybe any role--his casting as a Japanese soldier in the WWII melodrama THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND wasn't the best use of his abilities. But other than that, Hammer's front office knew that Ripper could be relied upon to be on time, know his lines and give something more to his role--and the film he was in--than could be measured in the script. He was able to play good guys and bad guys with equal ease. Depending on the character he played Ripper's smile could be kindly and whimsical, or devious and threatening. The actor also had a well-honed sense of comic timing. (Most of the darkly humorous moments in Hammer cinema are directly provided by Michael Ripper.)
Ripper started his acting career as a young man, and most of his work in the 1930s and 40s was on the British stage. Ripper appeared in a number of movies during this period, but most of his roles were uncredited. In the early 1950s the actor underwent an operation for a thyroid condition, and his throat was weakened as a result. This forced Ripper to concentrate more on film roles (when you do watch Ripper in one of his many Hammer roles notice how he very rarely raises his voice, and when he does he sounds rather hoarse).
Ripper appeared in more than just Hammer movies--he shows up in such famous British films as RICHARD III, REACH FOR THE SKY, and SINK THE BISMARCK!. But he will be remembered for the many horror titles he was associated with. Ripper was a personal favorite of Terence Fisher and Freddie Francis, the two most important directors of English Gothic cinema. Ripper's relationship with Francis enabled the actor to be in such non-Hammer horrors as THE DEADLY BEES, TORTURE GARDEN, and THE CREEPING FLESH.
There's something to enjoy in every one of Ripper's film performances, but I'd like to point out a few of my favorites. In Hammer's 1962 period adventure NIGHT CREATURES (AKA CAPTAIN CLEGG), Ripper plays the role of Mipps, the steadfastly loyal member of Peter Cushing's crew of smugglers. In THE REPTILE, Ripper appears as the friendly Tom Bailey, who goes out of his way to help a young couple fight a strange menace in a small Cornish village. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE has Ripper in probably his most well-known role, as the lovable (and somewhat philosophical) tavern keeper Max. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is one of the many Hammer outings in which Ripper was behind a bar or in front of one, so I might as well include one of the actor's several tipsy performances--the magnificently named "Old Soak" in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, where he literally gets scared straight when he has to spend time in a jail cell with Oliver Reed's tragic lycanthrope.
As Hammer started a sharp decline in the 1970s, Ripper's film roles started to decrease. He began to concentrate on British TV before his retirement in the early 1990s. Before his death in 2000 he was able to attend a few monster movie conventions in the United States where he was (to his astonishment) received with great warmth from many Hammer fans.
The Hammer Films catalogue has had an important part in my life as a film buff. Because of that, I'm more familiar with Michael Ripper's performances than most "big time" mainstream actors. He really was a character--and to classic horror film fans, something of an old friend. It's very easy for a supporting player to be overshadowed by the likes of Baron Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and various voluptuous young ladies in nightgowns--but Michael Ripper left his mark on every single production he was ever involved in.
Monday, December 11, 2017
ADVENTURES OF KITTY O'DAY is Monogram's 1945 sequel to DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY. Jean Parker returns as Kitty, as do Peter Cookson as her boyfriend Johnny and Tim Ryan as Inspector Clancy. (As in the first Kitty film, Ryan is also credited as co-writer.) William Beaudine also returns as director.
In this story Kitty and Johnny work at the swanky Townley Hotel--she as a switchboard operator, he as a travel agent. Kitty's job fits perfectly with her busybody attributes, and while answering a call from the hotel's owner, she overhears the man being shot. Kitty sends Johnny to see what is going on, and he discovers the owner's body. When their old friend Inspector Clancy shows up, the body has disappeared. Of course all sorts of (supposedly) wacky complications ensue, with the body of the murdered man popping up in various spots in the hotel and other suspects turning up dead.
There's a lot more emphasis on comedy in Kitty II than there was in Kitty I. If anything, Kitty is more flighty and emotional than she was in the first film. She also does a lot of screaming here, and Jean Parker's yelps are on a Fay Wray-type level. Parker even gets to engage in some slapstick during a long chase through the hotel's corridors. The mystery (such as it is) takes a back seat to Kitty and Johnny's antics. The duo spend a lot time arguing with one another, and when they're with Inspector Clancy they argue with him, and while these scenes attempt to be funny they get a bit tiring after awhile.
This was the last Kitty O'Day film, and it's doubtful that the series would have improved if it had continued. Monogram was too low budget to give the character any pizzazz--further adventures of Kitty might have worked if she visited exotic locations and had excellent character actors to play off of. It's a tribute to Jean Parker that Kitty O'Day doesn't come off as a total pain in the neck--because when it's all said and done that basically what the character is. The Kitty O'Day movies remind me of the many classic TV sitcoms that would have episodes where the main members of the cast play detective. Jean Parker by far is the best thing about them.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
When I started becoming a film buff in the mid-1980s, the VCR home video boom was starting to commence. Video rental stores were popping up on every corner, and VHS tapes were being sold at just about every type of establishment. The big-name mainstream movies on VHS were rather expensive to purchase back then, but there were plenty of cheap public domain movies to be had.
I noticed that one of the actresses who kept cropping up in these low-budget tapes was Jean Parker. She starred in such famous public domain films as FLYING DEUCES with Laurel & Hardy, ONE BODY TOO MANY with Bela Lugosi, and BLUEBEARD with John Carradine. In the 1930s Parker had appeared in such major pictures as LADY FOR A DAY and RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, but for whatever reason she was relegated to Poverty Row titles in the 1940s.
It's hard to understand, at least from my viewpoint, why Parker didn't become a major Hollywood star. She was very pretty, with a nice figure, and she had an appealing personality. She was also a more than capable actress who could handle drama and comedy. The lady herself must have been disappointed at her lack of major roles, since she left Hollywood in the mid-1940s and concentrated on stage work.
The actress did get to play a kind-of recurring series role for Monogram in the character of Kitty O'Day. The two Kitty O'Day features are among those many black & white low-budget flicks that I watch on YouTube while trying to get to sleep.
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY was made by Monogram in 1944. In this one Kitty is the secretary to a business executive named Wentworth. Kitty's boyfriend Johnny Jones (Peter Cookson) is an accountant dismayed by Wentworth's overwork of Kitty. Kitty is told by her boss to come over to his house after hours to do even more work, and while there she discovers the man hanged. Both Kitty and Johnny--who was handling a large amount of securities for Wentworth--wind up becoming suspects. Kitty decides to try and capture the real culprit, dragging along an exasperated Johnny. The duo's investigations wind up getting them into more trouble, since wherever they go another dead body pops up.
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY tries very hard to be like one of those screwball comedies of the 1930s. The movie is only an hour long, and it thankfully moves at a accelerated clip. There's a lot of rapid-fire dialogue exchanges between Kitty, Johnny, and a frustrated police inspector named Clancy (played by Tim Ryan, who co-wrote the screenplay). Clancy has a dumb associate named Mike (dim-witted cops were a dime a dozen in movies like this). The comedy quotient in this is higher than the usual Monogram picture, but it is on the level of a mediocre Three Stooges short. At one point Kitty and Johnny disguise themselves as part of the cleaning staff at a high-rise apartment building, and they wind up getting stuck outside on the building's ledge, but the sequence goes on too long to be effective. The mystery isn't all that hard to figure out, simply because there's not that many leading characters, and about half of them get killed.
Jean Parker carries this film--the character of Kitty would have come off as simply annoying if played by an actress who wasn't as charismatic. We are first introduced to Kitty as she is listening in to her boss' conversation with his wife, a great way to show the audience how noisy she is. Kitty is constantly interrupting people and finishing their sentences, and her deductive "skills" are rather lacking. Whenever Kitty does discover a corpse, she faints. She solves the case basically by happenstance. It is Jean Parker's combination of looks, gumption, and personality that make Kitty tolerable.
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY was directed by William Beaudine, who worked on dozens and dozens of similar Poverty Row titles. He would also direct the follow-up film, ADVENTURES OF KITTY O'DAY, which I will discuss in a later blog post.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST (1945) is one of the few horror films produced by Republic Pictures, a studio better known for Westerns. Olive Films has recently released the movie on home video, and believe it or not, I had never seen it before. It is an unconventional vampire tale, and one that I found surprisingly effective.
THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST has very little in common with the other low-budget Hollywood monster flicks made around the same time. It is set in Africa, in contemporary times, instead of a Gothic European location. The cast does not feature any familiar names such as Lugosi, Carradine, Atwill, or Zucco. The story takes place in the fictional town of Bakunda, where a number of mysterious deaths have upset the natives. As you have no doubt guessed, the victims were drained of blood, and there were two tiny punctures in their necks.....
Local plantation official Roy (Charles Gordon) is determined to find out who is behind the murders, and he decides to ask the owner of a waterfront bar, Webb Fallon (John Abbott) if he has any information. The quixotic Fallon has not been in Bakunda long, but he already has knowledge of the seamier aspects of the town. While out on a jungle expedition with Fallon, Roy finds out that the man is a vampire! Fallon puts Roy under his spell, and prevents the man from disclosing this information. There's another reason why Fallon zaps Roy....the undead creature is interested in the young man's pretty fiance, Julie (Peggy Stewart). With help from a missionary, Roy battles against Fallon's dark powers.
John Abbott, a plain-looking and slightly built English character actor, might seem miscast as a vampire. He sure isn't Bela or Chris Lee--but I found his performance kind of refreshing. Webb Fallon's vampiric tendencies are more subtle than the usual cinematic bloodsucker. He doesn't wear a cape or evening dress--ironically he spends most of the movie in a white tropical suit. Fallon even goes about in the daytime when he has to, with the help of sunglasses. He does appear to have superhuman strength (at one point he makes short work of a bunch of toughs during a barroom brawl) and like most of his undead movie brethren he can hypnotize someone within seconds. Instead of coming off as an evil supernatural creature, Fallon gives the impression of someone who is suffering from a curse and is unable to control his actions. Despite his affliction Fallon tries to live a "normal" life (if hiding out in a backwater African town and running a shady dive can be considered normal), and every so often he wistfully reflects on the sadness of eternity. I would even go as far to say that the character of Webb Fallon anticipates other sensitive vampires found in DARK SHADOWS, the Anne Rice novels, and the TWILIGHT series.
The rest of the cast is rather mediocre, except for Adele Mara, who plays an exotic dancer who works in Fallon's establishment. Director Lesley Selander does create a few atmospheric sequences, and since the running time is only about an hour long, the movie doesn't wear out its welcome. This is very much a low-budget production, with the expected studio jungle settings. The native African characters are portrayed just about the way you would expect in a American film made in 1945.
The original story of THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST was provided by Leigh Brackett, who also co-wrote the screenplay. As a writer Brackett worked on some of the most famous films ever made, such as THE BIG SLEEP, RIO BRAVO, and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, among others. She deserves credit for coming up with a vampire story that stands out from pack of 1940s Poverty Row horrors.
THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST has apparently never had an official home video release before. The picture quality (the movie is in black & white) is very good. As usual with Olive, there are no extras whatsoever. I purchased the DVD version of THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST (Olive has also released a Blu-ray version).
I must admit that the main reason I liked THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST so much was that I had never seen it before. When you've seen as many old monster movies as I have, and you've seen them so many times over, you can't help but be intrigued with something that shakes the expected format up a little. I wouldn't say THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST is a great film--but it is a nice little "B" picture that deserves some attention.
Monday, December 4, 2017
My recent internet ramblings led me to stumble upon a 1934 Universal "B" movie called SECRET OF THE CHATEAU, a murder mystery that isn't all that thrilling or mysterious.
The story is set in France, although none of the cast go out of their way to act particularly French. A quirky Inspector named Marotte (Ferdinand Gottschalk) is determined to catch a criminal mastermind who steals rare artifacts, despite not knowing who the culprit is or what he or she may look like. Marotte attends an auction of items from a recently deceased aristocrat's estate, where he encounters Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd), a woman who he had sent to jail for document theft. The late aristocrat's nephew Paul (Clark Williams) arrives at the auction and lets it be known that his uncle has an original Gutenberg Bible at the family chateau. Julie, the Inspector, and sundry other suspicious characters gather at the chateau, drawn by the priceless tome.
I figured that since SECRET OF THE CHATEAU was produced by Universal, it would have some of the characteristics of that studio's other 1930s thrillers. But director Richard Thorpe stages things in a routine, uninspired manner--this movie looks as if it could have been made at any low-budget studio of the period. One expects the chateau referred to in the title to be presented as atmospherically as possible, but the indoor sets are rather generic. The identity of the criminal mastermind isn't all that hard to figure out (it was the character I suspected the most).
The most interesting thing about SECRET OF THE CHATEAU is its leading lady, Claire Dodd. She appeared in numerous Pre-Code Hollywood films of the early 1930s, and almost always she was the "bad girl" or the "other woman". She almost never got to play leading heroine roles. (She did play Della Street in some of the 1930s Perry Mason movies.) Here she does get lead billing, but her character still isn't exactly on the square--she has a criminal record, and she's egged on by her partner-in-crime to try and steal the Gutenberg Bible. (She does have a change of heart in the end, though.) Dodd was a very elegant looking woman and in her roles she always seemed to have a formidable attitude. It's nice to see her as a leading lady but in all honesty she doesn't get much of a chance to shine here. Dodd would later return to Universal and appear in the 1941 version of THE BLACK CAT with Bela Lugosi and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET with Lionel Atwill.
The Universal thrillers of the 1930s usually had a stock supporting cast of great character actors, but unfortunately that's not the case here. The movie does feature another Pre-Code cutie, brassy blonde Alice White, and Osgood Perkins, the father of Anthony Perkins, is also in the cast. Ferdinand Gottschalk (there's a name for you) does make an impression as the boastful Inspector.
SECRET OF THE CHATEAU belongs in the "Forgotten Horrors" category, and you really have to be a geeky film buff to want to sit through it. The poster that is at the beginning of this post is more exciting than anything that happens in the film.