Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween Movie Memories

Whenever it gets near Halloween, a few people usually say to me, "Since you are a big monster movie fan, you must always get excited around this time of year." In all honesty...I don't. Especially in this day and age, when Halloween has basically become what every other holiday celebrated in America is now--an excuse for trendy yuppies to get drunk and/or hook up.

Back in the distant past, however...there was a reason for me to get excited over Halloween. Back before the internet, before YouTube, or streaming, or the availability of thousands of movies on home video....there was a time when most TV stations showed classic horror films around Halloween. I'm not just talking about special-themed cable stations--I mean ordinary, average local TV stations.

In the 1980s, when I was a young teenager and a burgeoning film buff, classic horror and science-fiction films were quite rare on TV. Yes, there was the great Svengoolie, but other than that......every so often, independent stations would show an old monster movie very late at night, but unless it was on the weekend, I wouldn't be able to see it.

So back then I always looked forward to Halloween. That's when the vaults were thrown wide open, so to speak. All sorts of classic fantastic films would be shown, and many of them were ones I had never actually seen! When October came around I would scan the TV Guide intently, and circle any monster movie listings that were on a channel I could get. Does anyone else remember doing that? Those were the days when TV Guide was the real TV Guide--when it was specifically tailored to each section of the country. I can imagine that now there are a fair number of Americans who have never even used a TV Guide, or any newspaper TV listing. Back then there were no on-screen guides or personal devices to remind you when something was on. You had to figure out on your own how to keep aware of any classic monster movie showings.

My family did eventually get a VCR, but as some of you may know, setting up a 1980s version of those things to receive and record channels was practically a thankless task. It always seemed that whenever I tried taping something late at night, the movie would get delayed, and I'd wind up not getting the ending.....or for whatever reason there would be a different program than the one listed. I much preferred watching an old horror or sci-fi movie as it was being shown--that way I knew for sure I wouldn't be missing it.

It's almost impossible to articulate how exciting it was for me to watch a classic monster movie that I had never seen before on TV back then. Now you can go online and find the story synopsis of just about any movie ever made, or at least read dozens and dozens of blogs and reviews written about any movie ever made. In the 1980s, if you wanted info on classic fantastic films, you either read the few monster movie magazines that were still around, or you checked out horror movie books from your local libraries. (As I learned in later years, a lot of the info that I found was wrong.) To actually see a classic horror or science-fiction film--one that I had only read about or only seen a few stills of--was a treasured experience. Would the movie live up to my expectations? Would it be a dud? Would it be something I would remember for the rest of my life?

Today we take for granted all the entertainment content we have surrounding us. Most of the classic films we see now are in pristine condition, and they are in the correct aspect ration, and they're uncut, and we have audio commentaries and special features to accompany them. It's getting to the point now that viewing any classic film is as easy as turning on a light switch.

I'm certainly not complaining about being a present-day film buff--in many ways movie geeks are too spoiled. But there was something about seeing a classic monster movie for the very first time, late at night, on television....yes, the aspect ratios were wrong, and there were too many commercials, and it was more than likely edited...but that sense of discovery, that memory of seeing great performances by Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, Price, etc., that you had only read about....being exposed to master craftsmen such as Bava, Whale, Harryhausen...those experiences just can't be recaptured today. In a way I wish I could watch all the great fantastic films again for the very first time, just to have those moments of enchantment and wonder, just to have my imagination reinvigorated.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Monster Kid Radio's Classic Five Core Deck Card Of The Month For October

My favorite mummy movie of all time is the 1959 THE MUMMY from Hammer Films.

Yes, the 1932 THE MUMMY from Universal is a great classic horror film. It has a dreamlike, creepy atmosphere, moody expressionistic direction from Karl Freund, and it features one of the best overall performances from Boris Karloff.

But can you even classify it as a "mummy movie"? Karloff only wears the full wrappings at the beginning of the story, and we really don't get to see him in action. My definition of a mummy movie is one where an actual mummy (an undead creature wrapped in bandages) has a major role.

The Hammer THE MUMMY isn't just a remake of the Karloff version, it's a reboot of the entire Universal Mummy franchise. It allows Christopher Lee to reenact Karloff's role as a ancient Egyptian lovesick High Priest, and also portray a new version of Lon Chaney Jr's Kharis. The result is one of Lee's best overall performances. Simply put, Christopher Lee is the best movie mummy of all time. He's not the typical movie mummy that most people expect--he isn't a guy with a pot belly stumbling and shambling about. Christopher Lee's Kharis is powerfully built, and powerfully expressive. The old joke about how all you have to do to get away from the Mummy is move at a fast walk doesn't apply here. Lee's Kharis, with his strength and determination, undeniably gives the impression of a supernatural creature that could easily stalk you down and kill you. Out of all the movie mummies, Lee's is the only one that feels dangerous.

There's another aspect to Lee's Kharis that gets overlooked--the poignancy of the character. He's punished because of his great love for a Princess, sentenced to a fate worse than death, then brought back to life into a world beyond his understanding and used by a man who considers him little more than a weapon. Despite being covered head-to-toe in a very complex and effective FX makeup (brilliantly realized by Roy Ashton), Lee is still able to convey Kharis' emotions through his body language and his eyes. Lee makes Kharis into more than just an unstoppable being--at times he's sad and shameful, and the viewer appreciates that there still is a human being underneath all the wrappings.

The Hammer THE MUMMY does have a somewhat messy story structure, due to the many flashbacks in the story. But it also has many other notable elements than just Christopher Lee. Peter Cushing makes a lot out of the John Banning character, and his interactions with Kharis result in some of the best moments in the history of the Cushing-Lee screen relationship. There's plenty of fine character actors on display here, such as George Pastell, Eddie Byrne, Felix Aylmer, Raymond Huntley, and the wonderful Michael Ripper. Yvonne Furneaux brings an exotic bearing to the leading lady Hammer Glamour part.

The '59 THE MUMMY is one of the best directed films of Terence Fisher, with top-notch color cinematography by Jack Asher and production design by Bernard Robinson. It also has a magnificent music score by Franz Reizenstein. It was produced during the height of Hammer's great Gothic period, and while it doesn't get the attention that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA today, it should. It's my choice as the best mummy movie.

Monday, October 22, 2018


Budget conscious mavens Mill Creek have released a Blu-ray double feature entitled "Psycho Biddy". (Is that a politically incorrect term, or what?) The two films on the bill both star Joan Crawford--STRAIT-JACKET, directed by William Castle, and BERSERK!, co-written and produced by Herman Cohen. 

Both movies have more in common than just the main star. William Castle and Herman Cohen were far better at exploitation and hucksterism than they were at filmmaking, and the titles they did turn out are almost always never as fun or entertaining as one expects them to be. Both STRAIT-JACKET and BERSERK! were advertised as gripping, violent, edge-of-your-seat thrillers, but with a few snips here and there these two productions could have easily passed as 1960s American TV fare. For today's purposes I'll be examining BERSERK!

The 1967 BERSERK! belongs to the very small sub-genre of murderous happenings set in a circus. The two other major examples of this mini-genre, CIRCUS OF HORRORS and CIRCUS OF FEAR, are far more interesting than BERSERK!

Joan Crawford plays Monica Rivers, the no-nonsense, hard-driving head of a traveling circus based in England. Monica's circus is played by a series of deaths, which ironically makes the show more popular than ever. The suspects are legion--nearly every member of the troupe seems to dislike everyone else. Monica also has to put up with a new high-wire artist (Ty Hardin) who wants to be her partner in business and in life, and her troubled young daughter (Judy Geeson).

BERSERK! may sound like an early version of a "body count" movie, but there's really not that many bodies, and the gore is kept to a minimum. The murders wind up taking a back seat to the various campy aspects to the story. Joan Crawford, who was in her early 60s when this film was made, struts about in a ringmaster's outfit that includes short-shorts and tights. She also gets to have a bizarre relationship with the much younger Ty Hardin (they even have a candlelight dinner, with Joan sporting a nightgown). The duo spar with one another like a couple of teenagers, and what really makes their pairing so unbelievable isn't their ages--it's the inane dialogue they have to recite. As usual with any Herman Cohen production, the lines are ripe to be quoted by bad movie geeks. I do have to give credit to Crawford for one thing--she plays Monica Rivers dead seriously, as if she's back at MGM and it's 1935. (Some might say that this approach actually adds to the camp factor.)

As in many of the other Herman Cohen productions, BERSERK! features a group of characters that are not likable or even relatable. You don't care whether any of these people get knocked off or not--they're either grist for the murderer's mill or they are set up as red herrings. All the folks who work at the circus are constantly sniping at each other or complaining about their situation--it's hard to believe such a group could be able to successfully work together to put on a show day in and day out. It would seem that the Ty Hardin character would turn out to be the hero, and catch the killer, but he's as much of a jerk as everyone else. Among the supporting players are such British cult movie veterans as Michael Gough, Diana Dors, and the ubiquitous Milton Reid.

Michael Gough is to Herman Cohen as Peter Cushing is to Terence Fisher. As a matter of fact, if Gough had not starred in such Cohen entries as THE BLACK ZOO and KONGA, those movies would be just about unwatchable. Sadly, he doesn't have much to do in BERSERK!--he gets killed very early on, and he isn't even allowed to throw one of his famous on-screen temper tantrums. Diana Dors does her familiar "faded beauty who has a bad attitude" act, but she also doesn't get much screen time before she's done away with. Robert Hardy plays the Scotland Yard man investigating the crimes. The "Police Inspector in a horror film" part can be a thankless role, but Hardy gives the character a foppish, cultivated air, and at least avoids being forgettable.

The entire affair is blandly directed by Jim O'Connolly, and the story isn't helped along by the numerous real circus acts that are presented. The acts are rather dull, and what's worse is the far too many shots of audience reactions to them that are edited into the performances. If the actual circus scenes were cut out of the film, the running time probably would have been under an hour. If you have notable acting talent like Crawford, Gough, and Dors, and a story involving outlandish murders, why spend time showing trick poodles and elephants?

But there's still other things I can complain about--such as the head-scratching sequence where some of the circus troupe decide to sing a "humorous" ditty during a party (if you've ever wanted to see Milton Reid lip-sync, this movie is what you've been waiting for). Then there's the climax, where the movie really goes off the rails. I'm not going to reveal the murderer--but if you do see this film, you'll no doubt come to the same realization as I did at the end....if you stop and think about it, the killer would have needed the ability to circumvent space and time to commit all the various slayings.

So what is the point of buying a movie like BERSERK! on Blu-ray? Well. Judy Geeson does look rather fetching in her circus costume, and I did actually get to meet her a few years ago and ask her what working with Joan Crawford was like. (She told me Crawford was a true professional, and she had great respect for her.) I'm not one of those people who get entertainment from viewing truly bad movies, but if I did, BERSERK! would be on my watch list. It adequately fits the definition of camp, and the cast alone does give it some worth to film geeks.

The print of BERSERK! on this Mill Creek Blu-ray is very colorful, and it is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. As usual with Mill Creek, there are no extras. Indicator recently announced that they are going to also release this film on Blu-ray, and I'm sure it will be loaded with extras...but honestly, I don't consider BERSERK! to be the type of film you would want to spend a lot of money to get on home video. The Mill Creek "Psycho Biddy" Blu-ray was very cheap, and that's fine for me.

A BERSERK! publicity still signed by Judy Geeson

Saturday, October 20, 2018

DRACULA A.D. 1972 On Blu-ray From Warner Archive

The Warner Archive Collection made a lot of fanboys happy when it was announced they would be releasing DRACULA A.D. 1972 and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA on Region A Blu-ray. THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA disc has been delayed to November, but DRACULA A.D. 1972 is available now.

With DRACULA A.D. 1972, Hammer Films took the Count into the modern age. It was a decision that remains controversial to this day. There are many folks who can't stand DRACULA A.D. 1972--I am most certainly not among them. I happen to think it's an entertaining film, with two fantastic confrontations between Christopher Lee's Dracula and Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing (technically two Van Helsings--one in 1872 and a ancestor in 1972). I even believe that the first fight between Dracula and Van Helsing--the one that begins A.D. 1972--is one of the best Hammer film sequences of all time.

Some have complained that Lee's Dracula spends all of his brief screen time inside a deconsecrated church, but I think having him out and about in the London presented here wouldn't have worked too well. Besides, the mere appearance of Lee in his Dracula getup is more than enough. Peter Cushing as always brings authority and stability to the tale--no matter how many times I have seen him go off on one of his "I'm going to explain vampires to you" lectures, he still amazes me with how effortless he does it, and how realistic he makes it sound. 

Cushing & Lee are the true foundation on which this movie is built, but let's give some credit to the younger cast (despite some of the goofy dialogue they have to utter). Stephanie Beacham as Van Helsing's daughter turns what could have been just another ditzy modern horror heroine role into a young woman that actually has some emotional depth. She's also quite gorgeous here, and along with Caroline Munro, Marsha Hunt, and Janet Key, the ladies form one of the best single film collections of Hammer Glamour. Christopher Neame as Johnny Alucard just about steals the film from Cushing & Lee. For those of you raising your eyebrows at that statement, let me unequivocally declare that Neame gives one of the best supporting performances in any Hammer horror film. Neame lets loose and gives it his all, and I agree with his approach here.

Director Alan Gibson does a very good job juggling the modern and Gothic elements, and I even appreciate Mike Vickers' funky music score--as a matter of fact, I'm listening to it on vinyl even as I write this post! DRACULA A.D. 1972 does have a few silly elements to it, but all in all the movie remains one of my great guilty pleasures.

Warner's Blu-ray of DRACULA A.D. 1972 is the best I've ever seen the movie look. Usually A.D. 1972 has had a dark, murky look to it, due to the many day-for-night scenes. On this Blu-ray the entire movie is much clearer and the visual presentation is more defined. This bodes well for any future Hammer releases that the Warner Archive have in mind.

Sadly the only extra is an original trailer. Any Hammer movie on home video deserves some supplementary material--hopefully Warner will consider this point.

Many Hammer fans such as myself were anticipating that someday the Warner Archive would come out with a follow-up to their "Horror Classics" collection of a few years ago (which was subtitled Volume One, after all). That may not happen, but the fact that these two Hammer Dracula releases have gotten so much attention on the internet might cause the company to put out other Hammer product. DRACULA A.D. 1972 is a groovy start--and even if you don't enjoy the film as much as I do, how can you turn down the chance to see Cushing & Lee battle each other to the death twice??

Sunday, October 14, 2018


Last night on his weekly MeTV program, the legendary horror movie host Svengoolie showed the 1944 Columbia film CRY OF THE WEREWOLF. This was one of the very, very few American monster movies made during that period that I had never seen. It doesn't have much of a reputation, and after actually viewing it I can see why.

CRY OF THE WEREWOLF is something of a follow-up to Columbia's RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, but it doesn't have the major presence of that's film star, Bela Lugosi. Nina Foch, who played the nightgown-clad damsel in distress in RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE, this time around is the main threat, a gypsy princess called Celeste who happens to be a werewolf. Foch's character is the daughter of a notorious woman named Marie La Tour, whose own supernatural tendencies were so pronounced that the ancestral La Tour home has been turned into a museum as a result.

An elderly researcher is determined to reveal the truth of the La Tour family history, and Celeste kills him--bringing the unwarranted attention she was so hoping to avoid. The researcher's son and his girlfriend, who happens to be from Transylvania, start their own investigation, and the usual local dopey police force noses in as well.

CRY OF THE WEREWOLF is very much influenced by the Universal Wolf Man films and the Val Lewton thrillers that had been recently made at RKO. There's a gypsy camp featured in the story which one swears could have been found on the Universal lot, and director Henry Levin throws in a few shadowy sequences which try to mimic the Lewton style. But CRY OF THE WEREWOLF falls short of the Universal and Lewton catalogue. The movie is only 63 minutes long, which doesn't leave much time for character development or an expansive plot. What's worse, there are no human-to-wolf transformations--Celeste just immediately dissolves into what looks like a German Shepherd. There are even a few times in the story where it seems the screenplay is trying to suggest that there isn't a werewolf--which makes no sense, considering that early on we are shown there definitely is a lycanthropic curse affecting the La Tour family.

Nina Foch in a publicity still for CRY OF THE WEREWOLF

Nina Foch dominates this film as Celeste. She gives the wolf woman a sultry, almost femme fatale type of quality as she stalks about wearing high heels and black stockings. There are a few times where Celeste drops her imperious manner--such as when she sobs after one of her wolfish kills, and when she tries to seduce the researcher's son. In addition to being a werewolf, Celeste also has the ability to hypnotize people and put them in a trance. These moments make the character all the more intriguing, but the script doesn't develop them enough.

Like so many horror/science-fiction films made during the classic Hollywood period, far too much time of CRY OF THE WEREWOLF is spent on the "normal" romantic couple and the noisy cops involved in the case. The researcher's son (who has the splendidly generic name of Bob) is played by Stephen Crane, who acts as uncharismatic as one could possibly be when confronting his father's death by werewolf and his girlfriend being threatened by the same creature. The girlfriend is played by Osa Massen, an attractive girl who bears a resemblance to Nina Foch. At one point in the tale Celeste tries to put the girl under her spell, promising to make her "a sister". The script should have made the two women actual relatives--that would have given some complexity to the girl's plight. Long-time screen tough guy Barton MacLean plays the cop in charge of the case, and if anything he gets more screen time than Nina Foch does.

Maybe it's unfair to expect too much out of a film like CRY OF THE WEREWOLF--after all, it's only a 1940s B movie. But when you're like me, and you've seen so many pictures in this type of genre, one can't help but come up with various ideas on how a mediocre entry like this could have been improved. The one thing I am thankful for is that even in 2018 I'm still able to experience vintage horror films I've never seen before due to the courtesy of Svengoolie.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Yesterday I covered Kino's Blu-ray release of the famed TV movie THE NIGHT STALKER. Today I'll examine the sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, which Kino has also put out on Blu-ray.

TV movies very rarely received sequels, but THE NIGHT STALKER was such a success a new story featuring the character of Carl Kolchak was almost a given. Much of the same team behind the first film was reunited--writer Richard Matheson, producer Dan Curtis (who also took over as director), and actors Darren McGavin as Kolchak and Simon Oakland as his exasperated boss.

THE NIGHT STRANGLER finds Kolchak in Seattle, once again working at a newspaper under Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Kolchak has barely started his new job when he winds up once again investigating a series of mysterious murders. A number of women have been strangled, and they each have had blood removed from them. Kolchak's snooping leads him to find out that every 21 years before the present, Seattle has been the setting for similar killings. Once again the local authorities consider the reporter nothing more than a nuisance, and once again Kolchak must confront the threat on his own--this time in an eerie preserved section of the city that is underground. There is a major difference, though--the killer is not a vampire, but a doctor born in the 19th Century who has discovered an elixir to prolong life.

THE NIGHT STRANGLER is almost a semi-remake of THE NIGHT STALKER. The story is structured very much the same, and many sequences are almost virtually repeats from the first film (watching the two movies in close proximity to one another vividly brings this out). It's still an entertaining story, and Dan Curtis' use of Seattle locations does much to enhance it. Richard Matheson's idea of using the real-life Seattle underground as the killer's lair is an effective concept, and the unnaturally old scientist seeking to preserve his elongated life brings to mind many other classic tales, such as THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Long Live Walter Jameson" and the Hammer film THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH.

As in the first Kolchak tale, Dan Curtis brings in a number of notable performers, such as Wally Cox, Margaret Hamilton, John Carradine, and Al Lewis. The ancient doctor is played by Richard Anderson, one of the most proficient actors in American television during the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike the vampire of THE NIGHT STALKER, who had no dialogue, Anderson gets to exchange lines with Kolchak (he explains his killings much the same way a Bond villain explains a plan for world domination). Anderson gives the fiend an air of cultured intelligence, and the scenes set in his underground lair are the best in the film.

THE NIGHT STRANGLER is a very fine follow-up to THE NIGHT STALKER. But while watching it I came to the realization that the character of Kolchak suffers from what I would call "John McClain syndrome". It's always fun to watch Darren McGavin as Kolchak...but how long can a viewer keep buying into the idea of incredible events happening to the same person over and over again? If Kolchak really was a Van Helsing type, who was waging some kind of crusade against supernatural threats, maybe it would work better...but the guy is just an itinerant reporter. Maybe this is why the Kolchak TV series didn't last very long.

Kino's Blu-ray of THE NIGHT STRANGLER has the same high sound & picture quality of their THE NIGHT STALKER disc, and it has similar extras, such as another booklet with text by Simon Abrams and cover art by Sean Phillips. There's an interview with composer Bob Cobert which is exactly the same as the one on THE NIGHT STALKER disc, and a short vintage interview with Dan Curtis.

During his exemplary audio commentary, Tim Lucas explains that the version of THE NIGHT STRANGLER found on this Blu-ray is actually a longer cut of the movie prepared for theatrical release overseas. It's a good thing he does this, since this fact is not mentioned anywhere on the Blu-ray packaging. Lucas points out the similarities between the two Kolchak TV movies, and as might be expected, he makes some comparisons to the works of Mario Bava--but he does provide a legitimate explanation to do so. (He also throws in a couple Jess Franco references.)

Both Kolchak TV movies are fun, entertaining stories, and Kino has given each of them an impressive presentation on home video. I recommend the pair...although you may not want to watch them so closely together.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

THE NIGHT STALKER On Blu-ray From Kino

Kino Lorber gives the special edition treatment to one of the greatest television movies of all time with their Blu-ray release of THE NIGHT STALKER.

True examples of the major network made for TV film are all but extinct now (about the only places you'll find anything that comes near to that definition today are the Lifetime and Hallmark cable channels). Back in the 1970s, the TV movie had a large place in pop culture, and a few of them became nationwide hits. One of the most famous (and most watched) was THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), a tale about modern-day vampirism in Las Vegas. The telefilm spawned a sequel (THE NIGHT STRANGLER) and a short-lived series featuring the lead character of reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin. Kolchak still remains a geek culture icon to this day.

THE NIGHT STALKER had considerable talents behind it--the producer was Dan Curtis, creator of the cult soap opera DARK SHADOWS; the director was John Llewellyn Moxey, who had helmed one of the best English Gothic feature films of all time (CITY OF THE DEAD); and the screenplay was written by one of the great postwar American writers, Richard Matheson.

In Las Vegas, a number of women are being killed and drained of their blood. Iconoclastic newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) starts to believe that the perpetrator of these deeds must think he's a vampire. But as he plunges further into the crimes, Kolchak comes to the realization that the killer is a real vampire. The local authorities are more of a hindrance to Kolchak than a help--and even the reporter's own boss at the paper (Simon Oakland) tries to curtail his theories. Kolchak decides to confront the vampire himself--he's convinced the resulting story will make him a big-time journalist--but the scariest thing in the tale is what the Las Vegas bureaucracy does to the reporter after he faces off against the supernatural threat.

There are a number of factors that make THE NIGHT STALKER the outstanding film that it is. The prime one is Darren McGavin, who is (and always will be, no matter how many reboots) Carl Kolchak. As soon as Kolchak strides into the newspaper office, with an insouciant look on his face, we know exactly what type of person he is. His dress and manner seem something out of the 1930s and 1940s, and he's probably more clever and craftier than any criminal he's ever covered. Because Kolchak has such a independent, non-elitist persona, the viewer is apt to believe him when he figures out there's an undead fiend stalking the women of Las Vegas. McGavin brings a bit of humor to the role, but it never seems forced, and his film-noir style narration of events is just right.

Kolchak is definitely hoping to use the vampire murders to help his own career, but there's also a few other things at play. One is that Kolchak wants to stick it to the authorities and his own boss, who consider him to be almost a clown. Another is that Kolchak really does want prevent other people from being hurt. McGavin makes Kolchak's attitudes and actions totally believable--the reporter isn't perfect, and he can be annoying, but he's someone you want on your side.

One other main factor in the success of THE NIGHT STALKER is that it is filmed and written in a realistic, down-to-earth manner. (Screenwriter Richard Matheson in particular was a master at bringing fantastic elements into ordinary American settings.) The vampire's victims are everyday, working class women, and the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas is de-emphasized.  The story takes great pains to show the medical and police procedures that would be the result of such a scenario. Director John Moxey does stage some exciting battles between the vampire and the police, but there's nothing overtly outlandish about them. Moxey also gives the vampire's hideout a creepy ambiance without the use of gore or shock effects.

The final element that makes THE NIGHT STALKER work is the cast. McGavin alone might have been enough, but he's surrounded by a plethora of great character actors: Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw, Kent Smith, Elisha Cook Jr., and Stanley Adams. (Dan Curtis was something of a film buff, and he would always take the opportunity to cast classic Hollywood notables when he could.) Carol Lynley does well as Kolchak's girlfriend (surprisingly, she does not become a candidate for the vampire's clutches). The undead fiend is played impressively by Barry Atwater. His vampire reminds me a bit of Christopher Lee's Dracula, in that Atwater has very little screen time, no dialogue, and immense strength.

Kino has fitted out this Blu-ray with a wealth of extras. There are new (but short) interviews with director John Moxey and composer Bob Cobert, who wrote the music for the film. There's a vintage interview with producer Dan Curtis, and the Blu-ray package contains a nice booklet with text on the movie by Simon Abrams. The fine cover sleeve art (see above) is by Sean Phillips. Tim Lucas contributes a brand new audio commentary, and he does his usual superlative job (he does spend a fair amount of time discussing what he feels are the political aspects of THE NIGHT STALKER).

The Blu-ray packaging touts this release as being a brand new restoration in 4K. Some on the internet have complained about the visual quality, but as far as I'm concerned, it looks and sounds pretty darn good for a telefilm made in 1971. 

Even though it was "just" a TV movie, THE NIGHT STALKER remains more impressive than many feature length movies made around the same time. It's a great modern American vampire story, and important for introducing to the world the character of Carl Kolchak. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018


My last post concerned a DVD I bought containing two early John Ford sound films: BORN RECKLESS and PILGRIMAGE. I covered BORN RECKLESS in that post, and today I will be reviewing PILGRIMAGE.

Film historian and Ford biographer Joseph McBride calls PILGRIMAGE the director's first great film. It has very little in common with Ford's more esteemed classics. Most of PILGRIMAGE was filmed on indoor sets, and the usual Ford themes of family and American traditions are put into question here. PILGRIMAGE isn't a male-dominated action story--it is a domestic drama centered around a stubborn, independent elderly woman named Hannah Jessop (Henrietta Crosman).

Hannah is a widow who lives on a small farm in Arkansas during the early 20th Century. She dotes obsessively over her teenage son Jim (Norman Foster). Jim is bored by farm life, and he wants to go off and join America's involvement in World War I. Hannah is totally against the idea--she doesn't want Jim to ever leave the farm. She's also totally against Jim's romance with a neighbor girl (Marian Nixon). Hannah is so determined to break up the relationship she decides to allow Jim to be drafted--but Jim's girlfriend is now pregnant. Jim is killed in action, and in the ensuing years Hannah has nothing to do with her grandson or his mother. In 1928 a government representative offers Hannah the chance to go on a trip with other Gold Star Mothers to visit their sons' resting places in France. At first, the old woman wants nothing to do with the idea--but she relents, and during the journey the woman realizes the true consequences of her actions.

Like much of Ford's work, PILGRIMAGE is filled with many sentimental and moving moments. But there's also a dark overtone to the story. The Jessop farm is an expressionistic set that almost seems haunted--you can't blame Jim from wanting to get away from the place. The WWI sequence is impressively staged but very short--the abruptness of it is almost as shocking as Jim being buried by a collapsing trench. A very striking scene shows the Gold Star Mothers as a group boarding the ocean liner that will take them to France, while being saluted by the crowd looking on. Ford was a master of such scenes, and you can't help but be moved when at the climax Hannah comes upon her son's grave, and then eventually makes peace with his family.

There is also a fair amount of light humor in PILGRIMAGE--the movie would be very depressing if there wasn't. Ford pokes a bit of fun around Hannah's Arkansas community, and he makes great use out of the woman's fish-out-of-water experience at being in France. The Gold Star Mothers are individualized--the story goes out of its way to show that they come from all sorts of backgrounds and ethnic groups--and they get some humorous moments as well. But the movie still treats them reverently, and Ford's respect for the American military is very obvious.

BORN RECKLESS, which was made in 1930, had a very choppy aspect to it. PILGRIMAGE was made in 1933, and it has far more fluidity and pace--Ford had definitely mastered the sound film by this time. The director doesn't let the film get too talky--he uses a number of close-ups to show the characters' emotions, and a few times the actors even address or look directly at the camera. One of Ford's best attributes as a film maker was his visual staging of scenes, and PILGRIMAGE has several examples of this.

For all of Ford's visual acuity, what really makes PILGRIMAGE work is the performance of Henrietta Crosman as Hannah. The actress does a magnificent job in taking what could be a cliched character and making her multi-dimensional. Hannah is certainly a formidable and sometimes overbearing woman, but Crosman is still able to show the viewer that there's more to her than just angry bullheadedness. During the Gold Star Mothers trip Hannah opens up and starts to interact with others, and while in France she comes across a young American man who is in a similar situation as her son Jim was. This sequence kind of slows down the story--it's very predictable that Hannah will try to help out the young man as a way to confront her own mistakes--but Crosman is able to make it believable. The actress should have been nominated for an Academy Award.

The DVD that contains BORN RECKLESS and PILGRIMAGE features an audio commentary for the latter film by Joseph McBride. As I mentioned before, McBride is a great admirer of the film, and his talk is excellent, going over all the relevant facts about the production and discussing Ford's style and convoluted personality.

I had never seen PILGRIMAGE, and I was quite impressed by it. I'm sure many other film buffs have not seen it either, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't. It's the type of film that is easy to overlook--it doesn't have any major stars, and there's no major action sequences in it. But it is a highly effective and moving slice of early 20th Century American life. It also has major resonance now since this fall is the 100th anniversary of the climax of World War One.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018


My latest home video purchase is a DVD containing two rare films directed by the legendary John Ford. BORN RECKLESS (1930) and PILGRIMAGE (1933) are two early sound features made during Ford's tenure at Fox Studios in the 1930s. Today I will be discussing BORN RECKLESS.

John Ford is my favorite movie director of all time, and when I found out recently that Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers was selling a DVD containing two Ford films I had never seen, and for a rather low price, I just had to purchase it.

In his superb biography of John Ford, author Joseph McBride writes the following: "BORN RECKLESS is perhaps the least competently directed film to bear Ford's name; it's hard to spot much in it that looks like his style." I would consider the film to be mediocre as opposed to truly awful. It has some interesting moments, and it certainly will appeal to film buffs, but it is one of those early talkies that has a lot of clunky dialogue moments that slow down the pace of the story.

The main character in BORN RECKLESS is one Louis Beretti (Edmund Lowe), a son of Italian immigrants and small-time gangster who operates in New York City during the late 1910s. Beretti is caught after a jewel robbery, but instead of going to jail, he is given the chance to join the Army and serve in WWI. Beretti returns a decorated hero, and he becomes the owner of a swanky nightclub. The man still can't escape his hoodlum past--he still hangs out with the members of his old gang. His old buddies wind up kidnapping the young child of a rich woman who happens to be the sister of one of Beretti's army comrades who was killed during the war. The woman begs Beretti to help her, and he has to decide between doing what's right and going against his old friends.

Edmund Lowe was a big star during the silent days, but here he comes off as stiff and awkward, especially during the dialogue scenes. Lowe's Beretti is supposed to be a cocky, tough fellow, but the actor is miscast as a guy of Italian ancestry who has a complicated relationship with the law. If this movie had been made a few years later, Clark Gable or George Raft would have been perfect for the role--and Warner Bros. would have been the perfect studio to produce it.

BORN RECKLESS has a number of uneasy shifts of tone--it starts out as a gangster picture, then segues into a military comedy type of story, with Beretti and his army pals engaging in various hi-jinks while in France during WWI. It's at this part of the movie where John Ford's direction seems more comfortable. The WWI sequence ends with a well-staged artillery attack, but we are never shown how Beretti earned his medals. The nightclub scenes and gangster showdowns are filmed in a very generic manner. Even Pre-Code favorites such as Warren Hymer (as a gangster) and Lee Tracy (doing his usual smart-aleck reporter bit) can't liven up the proceedings. Ford does work in some nice visual touches when he can, such as the very expressionistic opening jewel robbery and Beretti's search for the kidnapped baby, which takes him to a hideout located in an atmospheric fog-shrouded marshland. At this point in his career, or at least in this film, Ford had not yet achieved the right mixture between dialogue and visuals--BORN RECKLESS might have been better if it had been a silent. A man by the name of Andrew Bennison is given a "Staged by" credit on this film--was he responsible for the talkie scenes?

BORN RECKLESS is far from John Ford's best work...but I would recommend it to his admirers, just so one could say that had at least seen it. (One bonus for Ford fans is that the movie has bit roles for Jack Pennick and Ward Bond.)