Sunday, September 15, 2019
Yet another Hammer Region A Blu-ray release from Shout Factory--this time it's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB. This 1971 film is best known for what happened during the making of it.
Peter Cushing was cast in the role of Professor Fuchs in the movie, but he had barely started working on it when his wife became gravely ill and passed away. Cushing was replaced by Andrew Keir, but a few weeks later director Seth Holt died, and Hammer executive Michael Carreras replaced him. The result is a understandably disjointed affair, but it comes off better than one would think.
Christopher Wicking wrote the script for BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, and the movie has his usual complicated story structure. The film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1903 novel THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS, but it is surprisingly set in contemporary times. The story details how the members of an Egyptian expedition, lead by Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir), discover the tomb of Queen Tera, an infamous sorceress. The moment Tera is discovered, the wife of the professor dies in childbirth. The professor's daughter, Margaret (Valerie Leon), is approaching her 21st birthday, and one of the members of the expedition, Corbeck (James Villiers), wants to use the beautiful woman in an attempt to resurrect Tera. Will Margaret be able to avoid the overriding influence of Tera upon her--or she is nothing more than a reincarnation of the Egyptian witch?
I first saw BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB way back in the 1980s on the "Son of Svengoolie" program. I'm sure it was heavily edited, and I found it too confusing. I haven't viewed it as many times as most of the other Hammer thrillers--this Blu-ray is actually the first time I've owned it on home video. Even in its uncut state BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB is confusing, but like other movies scripted by Christopher Wicking, one appreciates it more on multiple viewings. Valerie Leon looks stupendous in the lead role (especially in HD), and she brings a striking presence. Leon was dubbed, but I think this effect actually adds to her otherworldly quality. Why Hammer never used her again is beyond me. Andrew Keir does very well considering he took the role with almost no preparation, and the movie is enlivened by three very eccentric English character actors: James Villiers, George Coulouris, and Aubrey Morris (I'm surprised they didn't put Freddie Jones in this as well).
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB does not have a mummy in it--but I think that's one of the reasons the movie winds up working. It defies the expectations one has from the title. There's plenty of ambiguity in the story, particularly the climax. One never knows exactly what the characters are going to do, or which of them can be trusted. It's also quite bloody, with numerous ripped-out throats--one has to wonder how it got a PG rating in the U.S. If Peter Cushing had been able to star in the film, and Seth Holt had been able to complete it as director, it might now be remembered as one of the better Hammer productions from the early 1970s.
Shout Factory once again provides a fine-looking print, presented uncut in 1.66:1 & 1.85:1 aspect ratios. There's two new (and very short) interviews with a couple of men who worked on the film: Tony Dawe and Neil Binney. There's older interviews with Christopher Wicking and Valerie Leon, and a recent look at the production of the film. A new audio commentary is included by Steve Haberman, and he efficiently discusses the various trials and travails that affected the making of the film. There's also a trailer, and TV and radio spots which advertised the movie being on a double-bill with Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER (this double feature was rated PG!). Valerie Leon fans will be happy to know that there's a still gallery which features several glamour shots of her.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
It's another Region A Hammer release from Shout Factory--this time it's the 1972 psychological thriller FEAR IN THE NIGHT.
In the early 1960s Jimmy Sangster wrote a number of twist-filled contemporary-set shockers that were made by Hammer and influenced by the French film LES DIABOLIQUES. Two of these films, TASTE OF FEAR and PARANOIAC, are quite good. In the early 1970s, after Sangster had directed HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE for Hammer, he went back to a story called THE CLAW that had been written a decade earlier. Sangster produced, directed, and co-wrote what became known as FEAR IN THE NIGHT, the last of Hammer's psychological thrillers.
In his audio commentary on this disc, Troy Howarth states that, as a writer, Jimmy Sangster was an "economizer". Essentially, that means that Sangster knew how to write scripts that made the most out of the modest budgets favored by Hammer. FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a perfect example of this. There's only four main characters in the film, and there's only one major location. There's no major special effects, or action sequences. The movie overall is quite simple.
Judy Geeson plays Peggy, a 22 year-old newlywed who is moving into a cottage located on the grounds of the private school her husband Robert (Ralph Bates) works at. Peggy is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and she's convinced that she's been attacked by a person with an artificial arm. Peggy is told by her husband that the school is empty due to a term break. While wandering the grounds Peggy comes across the mysterious headmaster (Peter Cushing), and later, his arrogant wife (Joan Collins). The headmaster has--you guessed it--an artificial arm, and Peggy winds up confronting the man with a shotgun...but the young woman has no idea what trouble lies in store for her.
I'm not going to give away the climatic twists in FEAR IN THE NIGHT, but they're very easy to figure out, especially if you've seen most of the other Hammer psychological thrillers. There really isn't much to the main plot--the script could have easily been made as an hour-long TV episode. Judy Geeson spends a lot of time wandering around empty corridors and exploring vacant rooms. Thankfully Geeson is appealing enough to where the viewer is interested in what happens to her. Peggy is a vulnerable and insecure character, but Geeson (an underrated actress) is able to gain sympathy without appearing weak. Ralph Bates seems more suited to play a contemporary person than one of his Gothic Hammer roles, and Joan Collins plays the type of role one expects Joan Collins to play.
Peter Cushing has what is really a guest part (one hears his voice more than actually sees him), but he's still able to make a very great impression out of having very little to do. (When I met Judy Geeson a couple years ago at a convention, she went out of her way to tell me how much she adored Peter Cushing.)
FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a particularly tame film when one compares it to other low-budget British horror movies made during the same period. It's not a great movie, and it's very predictable, but I think its old-fashioned attitude allows it to hold up well when looked at today. Jimmy Sangster was a much better writer than a director, but as a filmmaker he seems a lot more comfortable here than he did with HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. It's an okay little movie, and it certainly doesn't look low-budget, due to Arthur Grant's efficient cinematography.
Shout Factory presents FEAR IN THE NIGHT in two different aspect ratios--1.66:1 and 1.85:1. The print used on this disc is a fine-looking one, with vibrant color.
The extras feature an interview with Jimmy Sangster from the 1990s (it's the same one that is also presented on Shout Factory's HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN Blu-ray). There's also a short program in which Hammer experts such as Jonathan Rigby discuss the movie.
There's a brand new commentary with Troy Howarth, and it is an outstanding one. Howarth analyses, among other things, Jimmy Sangster's career, the entire series of the Hammer psychological thrillers, and Peter Cushing's film output after the death of the actor's wife. An older commentary with Sangster and Marcus Hearn is also included.
One more thing I have to mention, and this is for those folks who have never seen the movie and might be interested in purchasing this disc...the inside of the disc cover gives away the main plot twist!!
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
THE UNDEAD (1957) is almost impossible to categorize. It's a wild mixture of reincarnation, time travel, medieval witchcraft, devil worship, and post-WWII science-fiction. The movie was produced and directed by the legendary Roger Corman, and released by American-International Pictures.
Nearly every film Roger Corman worked on automatically gets a cult status attached to it. THE UNDEAD isn't as renowned as Corman's other directorial efforts from this period, probably due to its rarity--I don't believe it has been officially released on home video. It's no classic, but it's definitely not boring--and that's why Corman's ultra-low budget films before his Poe period still hold up today.
A creepy scientist named Quintus (Val Dufour) picks out a streetwalker named Diana Love (Pamela Duncan) to take part in an experiment. Quintus wants to hypnotize the woman and find out if he can cause her to regress to a past life in another time period. The experiment is a success--Diana (along with the audience) is transported to the Middle Ages, supposedly in France, where she is now Helene, a maiden scheduled to be executed for being a witch. Helene tries to avoid her fate with the help of her lover Pendragon (Richard Garland). A real witch, Livia (Allison Hayes), tries to disrupt the couple's plans, since she desires Pendragon for herself. Back in the modern world, where Diana is still in a trance, Quintus comes to the conclusion that if Helene is saved from execution, all her future lives will be altered, and world history as well. Quintus somehow hooks himself up to Diana's brainwaves and enters her past Middle Age existence. Helene finds out she must make a hard choice on whether to live in the present or the future, while Quintus discovers his experiments have worked all too well.
The above plot summary doesn't begin to explain the bizarre elements one finds in THE UNDEAD. It doesn't mention that Satan himself, as played by Richard Devon, makes an appearance--he even addresses the viewer at the beginning of the film. Once the story shifts to the Middle Ages, all the characters speak in a pseudo-Shakespearean dialect, courtesy of the screenplay by Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna. Such dialogue doth fall heavy from thy performer's lips, and spending about an hour listening to it is about as much of a chore as it must have been to recite it. Charles Griffith (who wrote the original THE LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS) was a master of dark humor, so I assume that the florid archaic verse might have been meant to be sarcastic.
Other goofy features in THE UNDEAD include a rhyming gravedigger (Mel Welles) and a "good" witch (Dorothy Neumann) who tries to help out Helene. Corman regular Bruno Ve Sota plays a tavern keeper, and the iconic Dick Miller, here billed as "Richard", plays a leper who is cured of his illness after signing his soul away to Satan.
Another cult icon, the sultry Allison Hayes, walks away with the film in the showy role of Livia. The future 50 foot woman gets a great camera pan from her feet all the way to her face, showing that she's much better built than all the sets in the movie combined. Hayes' Livia has the ability to turn into various animals, and she's accompanied by a midget familiar played by Billy Barty. Livia and her Imp are far more interesting than anyone else in the cast--one wonders why the slinky witch would have any desire for the underwhelming Pendragon as played by Richard Garland. Livia is a character that might have been played by Barbara Steele if Corman had made this film five years or so later.
Hayes stands out even more when compared to Pamela Duncan, who doesn't register strongly enough as either Diana or Helene. (Other veteran Corman actresses such as Susan Cabot and Beverly Garland would have been much more suitable.)
Billy Barty and Allison Hayes in THE UNDEAD
Five years or so later, Roger Corman was right in the thick of his period of making films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. One could say that THE UNDEAD marked Corman's first foray into Gothic territory. It must be said that the cut-rate THE UNDEAD makes the Corman Poe pictures look like multi-million dollar productions. Most of the atmosphere in THE UNDEAD is made up of lots of stage fog and fake shrubbery. (Corman has stated in interviews that most of the movie was filmed in a refurbished supermarket.) The black & white photography helps things a bit (I think the movie would have looked even cheaper if it had been made in color). There's no gore, but there's plenty of beheadings, and there's a sequence where Helene hides in a coffin underneath a corpse. Corman tries to spice up a somewhat desultory Black Mass by having Satan conjure up a trio of Vampira lookalikes, who proceed to perform a short bump and grind dance routine.
The most notable thing about THE UNDEAD (other than Allison Hayes), is the twist ending, which seems to me more fantasy than science fiction. The entire movie can be placed in all sorts of genres. All the disparate elements that make up THE UNDEAD may mix together uneasily at times, but the movie isn't boring. In the Roger Corman films before his Poe period, something was always happening in them, no matter how silly or outrageous that something might have been. What makes the work of Roger Corman stand out from other ultra-low budget drive-in films from this period is that his films move, and they are memorable.
Monday, September 9, 2019
A couple days ago TCM aired the 1966 Euro Western RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL, and I was able to watch it last night through an Xfinity app. The original Italian title of the film is JOHNNY ORO. It was released in American by MGM and presumably re-titled to reference the original Ringo spaghetti westerns, which this movie has nothing in common with.
RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL will be of interest to film geeks due to its being directed by Sergio Corbucci, one of the most legendary names associated with the Euro Western genre. The film, however, isn't one of Corbucci's best. It has more of a traditional American Western feel, with a sincere, upright sheriff, Apaches on the warpath, and a saloon girl that serves as a kind-of romantic interest for the main hero.
American actor Mark Damon (best known for his role in Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER) stars as the supposed "Ringo", the character known as Johnny Oro in the original version of the film. Ringo is a bounty hunter who works both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. He apparently is obsessed with gold (hence his original moniker). When he claims a reward, he demands gold in return, and his spurs and pistol are made of gold. Much is made of Ringo's unique firearm--one could say that Damon was the Man With the Golden Gun before Christopher Lee. In the movie the gilded weapon does look a bit like a children's toy, but it certainly gets the audience's attention, and from that standpoint it's an effective gimmick.
Mark Damon and his Golden Gun
Damon's costume--black shirt, black pants, black hat--makes him greatly resemble Pernell Roberts' Adam Cartwright from BONANZA (the two actors even look somewhat like each other). The main difference is that Damon has a thin mustache and he constantly flashes a Douglas Fairbanks-like grin. Damon's character is also a Mexican, and there's a hint in the story that this is why no one really trusts him. Other than that, the ancestry of the title character doesn't become a major concern. If this film had been made only a year or so later, the Mexican angle would have been an important plot point.
Damon tries to give Ringo/Johnny Oro some cocky self-assurance, but he's basically a good guy at heart--he's nowhere near as greedy or self-absorbed as most Euro Western protagonists. He helps out the heroic sheriff of a Texas border town, and even befriends the sheriff's young son. His relationship with the saloon girl (played by Valeria Fabrizi) is rather chaste, and the climax reveals that Ringo isn't nearly as money hungry as he's made himself out to be. Ringo is also rather talkative--he has more dialogue here than Lee Van Cleef would recite in about three of four of his Euro Westerns combined.
The main plot of RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL deals with a group of Mexican bandits with the family name of Perez. Most of them are killed by Ringo for the bounties being offered on them, but he leaves the youngest Perez alive, since he's not wanted for anything. The surviving Perez wants revenge on Ringo, so he gathers up an army of bandits and Apache Indians to attack the town where the bounty hunter is in jail, courtesy of the law-abiding sheriff. Usually the main villains in a spaghetti western are made out to be as outlandish or horrid as possible, but the remaining Perez is a young, clean-cut fellow who has no problem in having other men do his dirty work for him (he doesn't even brandish a weapon until the climax). This Perez is played by Franco De Rosa, an actor handsome enough to have played the lead character. This villain is another intriguing example of how this movie goes against the expected Euro Western elements.
Fans of Sergio Corbucci who haven't seen RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL will be surprised by it. It doesn't feature the nihilism and bleakness one expects from Corbucci's work. It also doesn't have several examples of shocking violence (there is a scene where a character gets a tomahawk to the head). There are a number of action sequences, and while they are well-handled, they have a very standard American Western feel to them. (There is a rather explosive climax, however.) The movie certainly isn't boring, but at times it seems to amble along--it doesn't have the narrative drive of other Corbucci films such as DJANGO or THE GREAT SILENCE. The director does try to give the story some visual flair--the print of the film I saw was in widescreen and it looked very good. The music score by Carlo Savina, as expected, is very much influenced by Ennio Morricone. This version of the film was dubbed into English.
Overall, I enjoyed RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL. It doesn't rank among the best spaghetti westerns, or even among the best movies directed by Sergio Corbucci, but it's entertaining enough. Those who are usually turned off by the excesses found in most Euro Westerns might appreciate this movie's more traditional feel.
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Have I seen every bizarre old horror/science fiction movie? Certainly not. There's plenty I haven't gotten around to, or haven't had the time--or the inclination--to view. But yesterday I did take the opportunity to watch one of the most infamous films ever made--TROG, the 1970 British production that so happens to be the last theatrical feature the legendary Joan Crawford appeared in.
TROG developed originally from exploitation maven Tony Tenser, who passed it on to another exploitation maven, Herman Cohen. Among those who worked on the script were Hammer veterans Peter Bryan and John Gilling, and the director was Freddie Francis, who by this time had made several horror and science fiction films in England. (For more information on the background of the film, I suggest searching out LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #31, which has a thorough article on the subject.)
The real reason Freddie Francis agreed to direct was the chance to work with Joan Crawford. The actress may have been at the end of her career, but she was still considered a Hollywood legend, and she had already starred for Herman Cohen in his wacky circus thriller BERSERK! If Crawford felt embarrassed about co-starring with a guy in an ape mask, she certainly didn't show it...the movie is bad, but it would have been totally unwatchable without her.
TROG opens with footage--way too much footage--of three young men exploring a cave somewhere in the English countryside. Finally one of them stumbles upon a vicious creature, and the poor guy is beaten to death. The man with him goes into shock, and the other explorer, Malcolm, decides to go to a local scientific institute instead of the police. The institute is run by a famous anthropologist, Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Brockton is so intrigued by Malcolm's account of events that she decides to try and find the creature, getting the attention of the police and media. The creature comes out to the surface, right in the middle of a live TV broadcast. Brockton channels Annie Oakley and shoots it with a hypo gun, then takes it back to her institute for study. She calls the being "Trog" (after troglodyte) and attempts to communicate with it. Brockton actually has success in coming to a sort of understanding with Trog, but a very, very angry local citizen named Murdock (Michael Gough) is convinced the creature is a menace that must be destroyed. Murdock sets Trog loose, and gets killed by it in the process. After killing some people in a local village, Trog comes upon a playground and makes off with a little girl. He goes back to his cave, where Brockton tracks him down and convinces him to let the little girl go. Brockton pleads with the local authorities to spare Trog's life, but the cave man is killed by soldiers.
As with most bizarre films, a plot summary does not do TROG justice. One has to take into account Trog himself. The creature looks as if someone attached an ape's head to a pot-bellied white guy's body (albeit a white guy dressed like a caveman). The final result reminds one of somebody's uncle dressed for Halloween instead of a relic from a prehistoric era. A wrestler named Joe Cornelius plays Trog, and while he's underwhelming in the role, it has to be said that even Lon Chaney couldn't have made the creature work if he had to wear such an outfit.
The story tries to make the viewer feel sympathetic toward Trog, but it doesn't help that the first time we see him he's killing someone. Apparently we're supposed to take the side of Dr. Brockton when she goes on and on about how Trog should be studied and nurtured. Brockton reaches Trog through the use of children's toys, including dolls and a rubber ball. These scenes are played absolutely straight, which makes them appear even more campier than if that was the intention all along. When Trog runs off with the little girl in the climax, one assumes that he thinks that she is a little doll, but this isn't really developed enough. Dr. Brockton has a cute, blonde daughter who wears a miniskirt--I thought she would be the one to get carried off by Trog, but apparently he hadn't reached cave puberty yet. Brockton lavishes far more attention on Trog than she does her daughter in the film, and at times she gives him the same loving glance she would bestow upon the likes of Clark Gable in the 1930s. At other times Brockton angrily scolds Trog as if he were a naughty schoolboy. Instead of a dedicated scientist Brockton comes off as an elderly woman wanting to remember her child-rearing days.
I do have to give credit to Joan Crawford here. No matter how silly the situations in TROG may be, or what she may have to do, she gives a totally committed performance. She doesn't play it as a joke, or walk through it....she gives 100% at all times. This may have been her last film, but she goes down fighting. An actress of lesser stature would have been overwhelmed by all the goofiness.
I also have to give credit to Michael Gough, who once again makes a mediocre movie watchable by his over-the-top manner. Gough enlivened every Herman Cohen production he appeared in, and his presence here is most welcome, even though we never learn why his character Murdock hates Trog so much. Does he have a thing against cavemen in general?? Did Fred Flintstone run off with his wife?? Whatever it is, Gough looks upon Trog as if he's the Devil himself. If Gough had been, say, the father of the young man killed by Trog at the start of the story, it would make sense...but his all-consuming hatred of the creature, though enjoyable, is puzzling. There's not many of the familiar character actors one usually sees in a British horror of this period, except for Thorley Walters, who has a small role as a magistrate that wastes his abilities. You'd think someone on the production would have been smart enough to take advantage of Walters' eccentric personality and have him interact with Trog in some way. American B movie actor Robert Hutton (who worked with Freddie Francis on THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and TORTURE GARDEN) plays a scientist who helps Brockton experiment on Trog.
It's those experiments that give the film its highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view). Brockton and a group of scientists place what looks like a cable splitter inside Trog's chest, and this somehow enables him to "speak" (what comes out of his mouth sounds to me like a whiny moan). Brockton then hooks some electrodes up to Trog's head (see picture above) and shows him various slides of dinosaur skeletons. This causes Trog to have a flashback (which we the audience see) of prehistoric creatures battling one another--it's actually stock footage taken from THE ANIMAL WORLD. You'd think about 20 seconds of this stuff would suffice in giving the viewer the general idea, but it goes on way longer than that. I couldn't help be reminded of Malcolm McDowell's "treatment" in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE while watching this sequence.
There's really not as many schlock moments in TROG as one might think. And maybe that's the film's biggest problem. To me, the worst thing a movie can be is boring, and like most Herman Cohen productions, there's way too many scenes of characters standing around on sets and arguing with one another. (By the way, the interiors for TROG were filmed at Bray Studios, the then former home of Hammer Films...but that venerable location doesn't look as atmospheric when Bernard Robinson isn't doing the production design.) By this time Freddie Francis was an old hand at making low-budget genre films, and the movie is competently made--but one can tell he wasn't all that excited about it. Take away Crawford and Gough, and the movie would have no spark at all. I've said this before about the average Herman Cohen production--they're more fun to discuss than they are to watch.
Yes, TROG is bad...but it's not stupendously bad. It's not even bad enough to be perversely entertaining.
Sunday, September 1, 2019
L'ARGENT is a 1928 French silent film that I had no knowledge of until I learned earlier this year that it was going to be released on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley. What caught my attention was finding out that the movie starred Brigitte Helm. I've been fascinated by the German actress since I first saw her in Fritz Lang's legendary METROPOLIS. Except for that film there's very little of Helm's work available on home video in America.
L'ARGENT is certainly a major showcase for Helm, but it's also an outstanding silent era epic, with a running time of two and a half hours. Director Marcel L'Herbier spent a large amount of money on the project, which is fitting because the story, based on a novel by Emile Zola, is about greed and the manipulation of people and events for financial gain.
Set in contemporary times, the main character of the tale is Nicolas Saccard (Pierre Alcover), a financier who is director of a powerful bank. As a result of a bad judgment, he almost ruins the institution he is in charge of. Saccard schemes to regain his stature and get back at his financial rival, Gunderman (Alfred Abel), by backing a famous aviator named Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor). Hamelin will attempt to fly across the Atlantic to French Guiana, where he, on behalf of Saccard, plans to take advantage of oil deposits there. The journey is successful, but Saccard's hunger for wealth continues to grow, along with his passion for Jacques' young wife, Line (Marie Glory). Complicating matters is Saccard's former mistress, the predatory Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm).
Even though it was made 90 years ago, L'ARGENT still feels very fresh when looked at today. The various financial complications set into motion by the main characters are very reminiscent of what is going on now, with major corporations affecting the lives of millions. One of the subtitles on the Flicker Alley Blu-ray actually says "Fake news". L'ARGENT was made before the stock market crash of 1929, yet it anticipates it, and makes a viewer realize how economies can rise and fall due to the whims of a few people.
Director L'Herbier provides plenty of spectacle to the story, with hundreds of extras and vast, impressive settings. Cinematographer Jules Kruger (who worked on Abel Gance's NAPOLEON) presents all sorts of inventive camera movements, along with several breathtaking shot compositions. The result is that L'ARGENT is a visual feast, ranking right alongside more well-known productions from the silent period.
For all the cinematic flair, L'Herbier still makes the human element important. The portly Pierre Alcover is the ultimate manifestation of a money-making fat cat (if this story had been made in America a few years later, Edward Arnold would have been perfect for the role). It is to Alcover's credit, however, that Nicholas Saccard doesn't turn out to be a total ogre. Henry Victor is the good guy of the movie as the heroic aviator. Film buffs who watch L'ARGENT will be shocked to know that the handsome leading man here would later play the dopey strong man in Tod Browning's FREAKS! Marie Glory projects a sense of innocence as the aviator's wife, but even her character succumbs to the power of money (her bad debts put her in thrall to Saccard). I felt that Glory had a bit of a resemblance to Myrna Loy.
Brigitte Helm doesn't have as many scenes as Marie Glory, but she winds up stealing the film nonetheless. Helm's Baroness Sandorf (there's a striking character name for you) is slinky and seductive, constantly putting herself into whatever situation that will allow her to continue a luxurious lifestyle. Helm wears about fifteen different costumes, each one more stupendous than the last, and she totally dominates whatever scene she's in. If you are a fan of METROPOLIS and you're pining to see more of Brigitte Helm, L'ARGENT will not disappoint you. Helm even gets to have a reunion with the actor who played the Master of Metropolis by sharing a couple scenes with Alfred Abel.
The print of L'ARGENT used on the Flicker Alley Blu-ray was excellent, showcasing all sorts of detail in the production design and the costumes. (This blog post is not meant to be a review of the actual Blu-ray; it's the movie that I'm focusing on here, since I had never seen it before.)
One of the most enchanting joys of being a film geek is making discoveries about titles that one knows next to nothing about. L'ARGENT is one of those pleasant discoveries. Brigitte Helm was definitely the reason I bought this disc...but thankfully the movie is worthy in its own right, a large scale silent blockbuster that features one impressive sequence after another. It is a film that deserves more attention, and more viewership.
Saturday, August 31, 2019
Shout Factory's series of Region A Hammer releases carries on with HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970).
This movie is the product of one of Hammer's most quizzical production decisions. By 1970 the company had made five Frankenstein features starring Peter Cushing. The latest film in the series was the bleak FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, which is now considered one of Hammer's best films. The Cushing Frankenstein films were not as popular as the Christopher Lee Dracula series, but they were still an important part of Hammer's overall output. The decision was then made to do what would now be called a re-boot--cast a different, younger actor as Baron Frankenstein and essentially remake the first Hammer Gothic horror, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Hammer had a script from Jeremy Burnham, and to get Jimmy Sangster (the writer on the earliest of the company's Gothic horrors) interested in the project, he was allowed to produce and direct as well. Sangster wasn't really that much of a Gothic horror fan, and he decided to try to put some humor in the movie. Ralph Bates (who Hammer was grooming as a successor to Cushing & Lee) was cast as the Baron.
The end result is an anomaly. From my point of view, it's not funny enough to be looked upon as a spoof, and it's not serious enough to be judged as a proper Gothic horror tale. The humor that Sangster tries to inject here is basically dark understatement. Dry, ironic humor is very hard to convey on screen, especially in the context of a Gothic horror tale. It might have worked better if Sangster had went all the way and made something like Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. The thing is, Mel Brooks had a love and affection for the Universal classics he was spoofing, while Sangster seems to be looking down on the genre he once helped to revitalize.
Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein did horrible things in his films, but he also made the audience understand that he was totally committed to achieving his scientific goals, no matter what the cost. Cushing also had a dynamic intensity that piqued a viewer's interest. Ralph Bates as the Baron doesn't seem committed to anything. He gives the impression that he does terrible things simply because he can get away with them. Bates spends the movie with a bored, bemused look on his face (even when he's in bed with Kate O'Mara he doesn't look all that excited about it). I assume that Sangster and Bates thought that the Baron's absolute lack of empathy here would come out as funny, but it just makes the lead character very unappealing. (I do have to say that Bates is quite excellent playing a smarmy jerk.)
The character of the monster, as played by future Darth Vader David Prowse, fares even worse. The creature brutishly lumbers about (as per Sangster's instructions), attacking without provocation. It doesn't help that Prowse is dressed in what resembles a giant diaper. The Hammer Glamour quotient is more than ably filled by Kate O'Mara and Veronica Carlson. O'Mara gets to make the bigger impression as the Baron's maid/mistress. Sadly, Veronica gets very little to do as Elizabeth, and her character is made to appear silly by her crush on the Baron, who has no interest in her. (Veronica personally liked Ralph Bates and Jimmy Sangster, but she was not happy with the film's tone and her role.) Audio commentator Bruce Hallenbeck states that Veronica never looked lovelier on screen than she did in this film (of course about the only way she could have looked bad in any of her movies was for someone to put a brick wall in front of her).
Veronica Carlson's personal copy of the shooting script for HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN
HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN lacks the involvement of many of Hammer's leading names. Production designer Bernard Robinson had passed away, and James Bernard did not do the music score. The movie also lacks many of the usual faces one expects in the supporting cast. (There is a showy role for Dennis Price as a fellow who procures bodies for the Baron--he's more entertaining to watch than Bates.) Despite Sangster's strange approach, the killings in the story are rather vicious, and the movie was advertised as a straight horror film. HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was not a big success (even among most Hammer fans today), and Peter Cushing, along with director Terence Fisher, would return to the series a couple years later with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL.
So, since I'm not a big fan of this film, why did I buy this Blu-ray? Well...you wouldn't want me to spend my money responsibly, would you?? Actually, Shout Factory has gone out of their way to make this disc an enticing purchase. Believe it or not, I had never owned HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN on home video before...but every time I had seen it on TV, it looked dull and flat. This new Blu-ray features a colorful, vibrant transfer in two different aspect rations--1.85:1 and 1.66:1.
There's plenty of extras, the most important one being a interview with Veronica Carlson by Constantine Nasr that was filmed in her home a couple years ago. Veronica speaks with genuine emotion and appreciation of her days at Hammer, and her dissatisfaction with HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. There's also another interview with Veronica from 2001. A talk with Jimmy Sangster from the 1990s is included (most of Sangster's answers to the questions put to him are basically "I don't know or remember"). There's a short discussion with Nicholas Granby, who worked as a assistant director on the film.
There's a short featurette on the making of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, where such Hammer experts as Jonathan Rigby give their opinions on the production. An extensive stills gallery is here as well, with many glamorous photos of Kate O'Mara and Veronica Carlson.
This disc has a brand new audio commentary by Bruce Hallenbeck, who has written extensively about Hammer Films. It's an engaging talk (Bruce happens to enjoy the movie), and plenty of relevant information is given. There's also an older commentary with Jimmy Sangster and Marcus Hearn.
HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN is, in my opinion, a Hammer experiment that doesn't work...but this Shout Factory Blu-ray certainly does, especially if you are an admirer of Veronica Carlson.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966) became one of the most renowned Spaghetti Western films, and it inspired a slew of imitators. One of those productions has been released on Blu-ray by Synapse Films.
DJANGO THE BASTARD was made in 1969, but according to Euro Cult movie expert Troy Howarth, it was not released in the U.S. until 1974, when it was distributed by none other than drive-in movie maven Herman Cohen. The Italian production was known in the U.S. as THE STRANGERS GUNDOWN, and that is the title it goes by on the print used for this Blu-ray. Synapse must have felt that DJANGO THE BASTARD would be a more eye-catching title on a disc cover, and it certainly does get your attention.
Euro Western veteran Anthony Steffen plays Django. Is the character the Django?? Probably not, but he's a Django, and that's good enough for this movie. Like most other film characters that use the moniker, this Django is silent, stern, and mysterious. Django is introduced in this tale by ambling into a bleak Western town and planting a cross with an intended adversary's name on it right in the middle of the street. Django is out for revenge against the town boss, one Major Murdok (Paolo Gozlino). The reason for Django's vendetta is eventually revealed in one of the most common Spaghetti Western devices, the stylized flashback.
What makes DJANGO THE BASTARD intriguing is that the story is a bit ambiguous on whether the main character is actually a living human being or some sort of a spirit. The black-garbed Django is a truly implacable foe, due to the fact that he has the apparent ability to appear and disappear at will. He also dispatches his enemies with ruthless efficiency, due to his almost superhuman skills with a gun. The fellow does bleed...but even by the end of the film one isn't really sure what he may be. Clint Eastwood's HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER certainly comes to mind while watching this.
Anthony Steffen does bring a determined presence to the title role, although honestly he doesn't have to do much as an actor. With his dark outfit and scruffy facial hair he does bear a tad bit of a resemblance to Franco Nero's original Django, but he does not drag a coffin behind him.
Paolo Gozlino seems way too normal and low-key to be a Spaghetti Western main villain. The outlandish aspects one expects to be found in that role are given to Luciano Rossi as Murdok's mentally deranged younger brother. Rossi has a definite Klaus Kinski vibe to him, and one has to wonder if the part was written with Kinski in mind. The only major female role in the movie is played by Rada Rassimov, who is the wife of Rossi's character...it's explained that she was "hired" to marry him. The relationship between the couple is an interesting one, especially since one never knows how loyal Rassimov is to the Murdoks (she also makes a play for Django).
DJANGO THE BASTARD was directed by a man named Sergio...but it wasn't Leone, Corbucci, or even Sollima. It was Sergio Garrone, who also co-wrote the movie with Anthony Steffen. Garrone and his cinematographer Gino Santini do provide some striking and atmospheric widescreen compositions.
According to the disc cover, this Blu-ray presents a all-new 2K scan of the English language version of the film from an original 35mm element. The print is in 2.40:1 widescreen and looks very good--the color is not very vibrant but I don't think it was supposed to be. There is only a English dub soundtrack. The disc is listed as playable for Region A, B, and C.
The only extra is an audio commentary with Euro Cult movie expert Troy Howarth. His talk is lively and enthusiastic. He gives relevant info on the film and he also provides his take on certain aspects of the Euro Western genre in general.
I wouldn't call DJANGO THE BASTARD a great Spaghetti Western, but it was better than I thought it would be. It is rated PG and it is surprisingly free of blood and gore--usually the more obscure Euro Westerns go overboard on the violence and exploitative elements so as to attract attention. I had never heard of the film before, and I believe it turned out to be a worthy purchase.
Monday, August 19, 2019
Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made such films as HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. I'm particularly fond of those three titles. His latest film is SHADOW.
The movie is set in ancient China, and concerns two kingdoms, Pei and Yang, who are jockeying for control of Jing City. Pei's military commander has challenged the Yang commander to a duel--the winner will gain control of the city for the province he represents. The Pei commander is actually a servant in disguise, a man trained since boyhood to pose as the high-ranking officer, who he greatly resembles. The servant is basically the commander's "shadow". The real commander hides in the catacombs of Pei castle, secretly training his substitute and plotting to take over the kingdom if his twin is successful in winning the duel. The shadow just wants to fulfill his duty and be allowed to go home--but the machinations of the emotionally unstable Pei king may cause the scheme to fall apart, while the real commander's wife starts to have feelings for his twin...feelings that are reciprocated.
What I loved about movies like HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER was their bold and unique use of color. In SHADOW, Zhang Yimou takes away all the color. Everything--the sets, the backgrounds, the wardrobes--are a combination of black, dark grey, or dull white. The only color comes from the skin tones of the characters. The effect is accentuated by the fact that it is constantly raining during the entire story. I'm no fan of desaturated color schemes, and this example is so pronounced I felt as if I was watching a Chinese version of SIN CITY. Instead of fake black & white, I wish that Yimou and his cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao had just went ahead and filmed in actual black & white--they do present some striking compositions. I got used to this minimalist color scheme after awhile, but personally I think the story would have worked just as well--or even better--with a regular color pattern.
As with most of Yimou's tales of historical court intrigue, the story is more concerned with themes like honor, betrayal, and deceit instead of super-charged action sequences. There are some martial arts battles, but not as many as one would think. When there are battles, Yimou and the movie's stunt team stage the action in an unusual and distinct manner, totally different from the Hollywood way.
SHADOW is also different from Western storytelling in that there are no typically "good" or "bad" characters--Yimou (who also co-wrote the screenplay) doesn't so much judge the characters as he observes them. The various double-dealings and interactions have a Shakespearean quality to them, and one can't help but feel a sense of doom hangs over all (mainly due to the bleak visual style). Deng Chao plays a dual role as the real commander and his shadow, and he does a magnificent job--I honestly thought that two separate actors played the roles. The film has a fair amount of dialogue, which means a fair amount of subtitles.
I wouldn't consider SHADOW as one of Zhang Yimou's best films, but maybe I'm focusing too much on the color scheme. It still remains as a intriguing adult historical drama, and it is a viable antidote to all the comic book and animated movies that are now flooding the market.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
The Sprocket Vault and Kit Parker Films present more rare product from the Hal Roach Studios with their CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES VOLUME TWO 1932-33 DVD set.
The set is made up of fifteen different short subjects on two discs. All of the shorts were made at Hal Roach Studios and star Charley Chase.
What made the first CHARLEY CHASE AT HAL ROACH DVD volume special is the fact that Thelma Todd appeared in nearly half the movies on the set. She only appears once in volume two--THE NICKEL NURSER, which sadly would be the very last time Charley and Thelma would appear onscreen together.
The shorts in this set seem to have more of a bizarre aspect to them than Charley Chase's usual work. There was a lot going on behind the scenes during the production of this group of shorts, as alluded to in Richard M. Roberts' audio commentaries. The Hal Roach Studios were undergoing a series of budget cuts, and at one point according to Roberts, Chase actually left Roach's employ. Charley also underwent various changes in directors and leading ladies. An actress named Muriel Evans would costar with Charley on the most of the films in this set, but she didn't have the comic expressiveness that Thelma Todd had (then again, not many actresses did). Chase would wind up directing the shorts himself. All of these factors combined may be one of the reasons many of the shorts have an uneven quality about them.
Nevertheless, there are some winners in this set, such as NATURE IN THE WRONG, a wild Tarzan spoof, and HIS SILENT RACKET, which features James Finlayson and Anita Garvin. LUNCHEON AT TWELVE is very reminiscent of the Three Stooges shorts Charley would direct at Columbia some years later.
These are technically Pre-Code films, but there's not as many risque elements as one would expect. There is plenty of singing and comic dancing, and it is at these times when Charley seems to be enjoying himself the most.
The shorts are all in decent condition. I wouldn't call the visual or sound quality superlative, but the most important thing is that these shorts are on official home video, period.
Classic film expert Richard M. Roberts provides an audio commentary for every single short. His knowledge of movie comedies and comedians of the silent and early sound era is inexhaustible--I marvel at how he had the time and the opportunity to see the numerous obscure comedy films he constantly refers to. Roberts discusses what was going on at the Hal Roach studios at the time these shorts were made, and he analyses how Charley Chase's onscreen persona affected the company's overall style. A poster and stills gallery is included, as well as a bonus short. This is UNA CANA AL AIRE, a Spanish version of Charley's LOOSER THAN LOOSE. This is basically a curio--at about forty minutes it goes on too long, and it's not as funny as the original.
This set of rare Charley Chase short films from the early 1930s might seem made just for hardcore movie geeks, but overall they are enjoyable, especially for those used to classic early film comedy. The Sprocket Vault and Kit Parker Films deserve a huge round of applause in making these shorts available on home video, and I sincerely hope there are more Hal Roach sets planned for the future.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
I've seen almost every British horror film from the 1960s.....but DEVIL DOLL (1964) has until recently eluded me. The movie is not to be confused with MGM's 1936 THE DEVIL DOLL directed by Tod Browning. DEVIL DOLL is about a stage hypnotist and ventriloquist called the Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday) who has a very unique way of giving "life" to his dummy. The story in some ways comes off as a full-scale redoing of the ventriloquist tale in the British chiller classic DEAD OF NIGHT. Both DEVIL DOLL and DEAD OF NIGHT feature a unnerving dummy named Hugo, and in the former film the puppet actually gets up and walks around--a major highlight of the nightmare sequence in the latter film.
I purchased the Image DVD of DEVIL DOLL for a low price, and the disc has two versions of the film--the standard cut and a "continental" edit that has brief bits of nudity.
Set in contemporary times, DEVIL DOLL has reporter Mark English (William Sylvester) trying to write an expose on the Great Vorelli and his fantastic act. Mark convinces his heiress girlfriend Marianne (Yvonne Romain) to allow herself to be hypnotized by Vorelli. The mesmerist becomes obsessed with Marianne, and puts her into a trance. Mark must try to break the spell that forces Marianne to be helpless and bedridden, while at the same time figure out exactly how a simple dummy can walk and talk on his own.
DEVIL DOLL was produced by Richard Gordon and directed by Lindsay Shonteff. The low-budget black & white production has no gore--it's more suspenseful than horrific. Shonteff and cinematographer Gerald Gibbs implement a very quirky visual style that involves several close-ups (too many in my opinion).
The most notable thing about the movie is how adult it is. Vorelli is something of a horndog....at one point he mesmerizes Marianne into visiting his room in the middle of the night (of course the woman is wearing a nightgown.) Vorelli embraces her as the scene discreetly fades away--but it's pretty obvious what happened next. (It's also obvious that this is basically a sexual assault.) Vorelli also favors using buxom female stage assistants and having them dress in scanty showgirl costumes. In the continental version of the film, Vorelli hypnotizes a female volunteer into doing a striptease (the male and female members of the audience find this highly amusing). There's a scene where Mark and Marianne engage in some heavy petting themselves, and it's way more than most leading couples in horror films of this type get to do.
As for the thriller aspects of the tale, Hugo the dummy does gives off a creepy vibe (I'm sure there are as many people who are freaked out by ventriloquist dummies as there are folks who are scared of clowns). Hugo becomes even more disquieting when he gets up and starts walking around (there was an actual person inside the costume during these moments). One complaint I have is that I felt Hugo's voice wasn't strange enough. Hugo's talents are due to Vorelli's ability to transfer souls--but after watching the TWILIGHT ZONE-style twist ending, one realizes that the mesmerist hasn't mastered that task properly.
Bryant Haliday (THE PROJECTED MAN) is very intense as Vorelli, and he makes a very capable menace....but while watching him I couldn't help but think that his role would have been perfect for Christopher Lee. Gorgeous Yvonne Romain (THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF) makes one easily understand why Vorelli would set his sights on her (actually the guy is more interested in her money, believe it or not). William Sylvester (GORGO) brings a realistic interpretation to what is usually a thankless role in a horror film. The supporting cast includes such Hammer veterans as Francis de Wolff and Phillip Ray.
There's someone else in the cast I have to mention. He's an actor by the name of Alan Gifford, and, like William Sylvester, he appeared in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY....which makes me wonder--did Stanley Kubrick see DEVIL DOLL??
I wouldn't call DEVIL DOLL a fantastic film--it's more like an elongated episode of a 1960s TV anthology show. But it does have a few intriguing moments and an interesting cast, especially if you are familiar with British fantastic films from the 1950s and 60s.
Saturday, August 10, 2019
This main disc cover of this Shout Factory Blu-ray presents the movie's title as QUATERMASS II. The reverse of the disc cover sleeve displays the American release title of the film: ENEMY FROM SPACE. The actual on-screen title of the movie is QUATERMASS 2. Whatever you want to call it, this production is one of the best science fiction features of the 1950s.
QUATERMASS 2 (1957) doesn't seem to get the appreciation, or the coverage, that the other two Hammer Quatermass films receive. QUATERMASS 2, at least in my experience, never gets shown on television as much as THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT do. Hopefully this new Blu-ray will gain the film some new devotees.
QUATERMASS 2 (the title refers to a rocket, not the fact that it's a sequel) is a moody, fast-moving conspiracy thriller that if anything holds up better now than when it was made. The plot involves alien beings from outer space infiltrating the British power structure by building a processing plant that is supposedly producing synthetic food. The human workers that actually run the plant are given high-paying jobs, housing, and other amenities--as long as they keep absolute loyalty to the "company" in charge. It's not hard to compare the aliens in this film to the giant faceless corporations that run so much of everything these days. Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy, returning as the character from THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT) stumbles upon this scheme and determines to stop it.
QUATERMASS 2 may be a science fiction tale, but it has as many disquieting moments as any Hammer Gothic horror. (It also has a zombie story aspect to it due to the number of people under the aliens' control.) As he did in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, director Val Guest uses a black & white matter-of-fact style to keep things riveting. An actual oil refinery was used as the location for the processing plant, and Guest and his cinematographer Gerald Gibbs make the place look cold and foreboding. Several other outdoor locations are used throughout to give the story a sense of reality. The mood of the film is enhanced greatly by James Bernard's frantic music score.
The major highlight in the film is when Quatermass and a brazen Parliament member take part in a tour of the processing plant. The unusually affable tour "guide" (John Van Eyssen) is one of the creepiest characters in Hammer history, and the Parliament member's horrific fate is a rather shocking moment. The climax reveals alien creatures that are giant slimy amorphous blobs...and these creations are still more unsettling than any 21st Century CGI.
I must admit that I have never seen any of the original Quatermass serials that were shown on BBC television and which the Hammer films are based on. Nigel Kneale, who created the character and wrote the original Quatermass teleplays, didn't like Brian Donlevy's interpretation of the Professor, but I have no problem with his performance. Donlevy wasn't exactly a British scientist type, but his no-nonsense, get to the point style fits perfectly with the vibe Val Guest was trying to create. I find the urban legends about Donlevy being drunk and having to use cue cards on the Quatermass films hard to believe--here, as in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, he appears totally focused on what's happening around him, and invested in the story. There's plenty of Hammer veterans in the supporting cast, such as Michael Ripper, Charles Lloyd Pack, and Percy Herbert. CARRY ON star Sid James plays a reporter who tries to help Quatermass.
QUATERMASS 2 was one of the titles included among Anchor Bay's Hammer home video releases in the 1990s. Shout Factory claims that they have used a new 2K scan of the only surviving film print for this Region A Blu-ray. According to the DVD Drive-In website, the aspect ratio is 1.75:1. It's a nice transfer, very sharp in some areas, but there are times when the picture appears overly dark. The DTS-HD mono audio sounds very well.
There's plenty of extras, including a vintage interview with Val Guest, which covers not just the Quatermass movies but much of his overall Hammer career. There's very short interviews with Brian Johnson and Hugh Harlow, who both worked on the film, and a still gallery and a American trailer. Another episode of "The World of Hammer" is here, focusing on the company's science fiction output.
There's three different commentaries. If you've been getting these recent Shout Factory Hammer releases, you can probably guess that one involves Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman, and the other involves Ted Newsom. An older talk with Nigel Kneale and Val Guest is included as well.
QUATERMASS 2 is a film that has long needed a special edition Blu-ray, especially for Region A. It is a finely crafted science fiction classic that deserves more attention.
Friday, August 9, 2019
Shout Factory continues its series of Region A Blu-ray Hammer releases with THE REPTILE (1966).
THE REPTILE was made by Hammer immediately after THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. The latter film has the better reputation, but THE REPTILE is a nice little movie in its own right. Directed by John Gilling and using the same sets as PLAGUE, it may not have Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee but it still features an effective cast. Ray Barrett is one of the best Hammer leading men, and the lovely Jennifer Daniel basically reprises her role in THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE as his kindly and appealing wife. Noel Willman is haughtily intense as the mysterious Dr. Franklyn, and Jacqueline Pearce gains sympathy as the title character (I think it's safe to say that she periodically turns into a snake creature--the film's advertising and trailers give it away). THE REPTILE also gives veteran supporting actors Michael Ripper and Marne Maitland a welcome opportunity to shine.
THE REPTILE has some slow spots, and the film's "mystery" is pretty easy to figure out, but it holds up very well compared to a number of other Hammer features.
When it comes to THE REPTILE being released on any home video format, the first thing one has to ask is, "What is the visual quality??" In my experience, THE REPTILE has always looked bad. The last time I saw it on Turner Classic Movies, it was presented in pan & scan!! The print used on the old Anchor Bay DVD was in bad shape--it made you think the entire movie was shot day for night (in all honesty, a number of sequences in it were actually shot that way).
Shout Factory's Blu-ray is a major improvement. There are times when the image is a bit soft, and there's a few scenes where it looks subpar (particularly the main title sequence). But overall the picture is much brighter and colorful, with increased detail. What comes across from watching this Blu-ray is how the dominant color of the film is decidedly green--the grass and leaves at the outdoor locations are quite healthy, and the hue is most noticeable in the production design and the costumes. Was this done on purpose due to the title character?
The sound quality is a major improvement as well, showcasing Don Banks' spirited score.
This Blu-ray presents the film in two different aspect ratios: 1.66:1 and 1.85:1 (honestly, they look almost exactly the same). The extras include a short interview with the movie's assistant director William P. Cartlidge, and a brief documentary on the making of THE REPTILE. There's also a "World of Hammer" episode on villainous female characters, trailers, TV spots, a still gallery, and reversible cover sleeve art.
This movie gets only one audio commentary, featuring Steve Haberman, Ted Newsom, and Constantine Nasr. It's okay, but I hope that in their future Hammer releases Shout Factory tries to get more variety in the voices used for these talks.
THE REPTILE isn't top-level Hammer, but it may get more appreciation due to the way it looks on this disc.
Sunday, August 4, 2019
THE KEY is a 1934 drama produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie is set in 1920 Dublin, during the Irish "troubles", and it stars William Powell and Colin Clive.
Powell plays British Army officer Captain Bill Tennant, who, at the beginning of the story, has just been assigned to Dublin posting. While inspecting his new lodgings Tennant discovers that his upstairs neighbor is an old army chum, Andrew Kerr (Colin Clive), who now works as an intelligence officer. Tennant also finds out that Kerr's wife, Norah, (Edna Best), is an old flame--something Andrew does not know. Both Tennant and Kerr are on the hunt for a major Irish rebel named Conlan (Donald Crisp). While on a night patrol Kerr tracks down Conlan and apprehends him. Returning home very late, he finds Tennant at his apartment with Norah. Kerr is so crestfallen by this situation he starts to roam about Dublin, not caring that most of the populace would love to get revenge on him for capturing Conlan. Kerr is kidnapped, and the perpetrators declare they will return him when Conlan is released from jail. After finding out that Norah really loves her husband after all, Tennant decides to make a rather large sacrifice to save his old friend.
THE KEY is a rather unusual film for a major Hollywood studio to make in the early 1930s. One would assume that the politically charged backdrop of the story might have scared Warners away from it. The movie takes great pains to avoid taking any type of side between the British and the Irish.
Despite being filmed on studio sets, Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller bring a lot of black & white expressionistic atmosphere to the foggy make-believe Dublin streets. The movie is only 71 minutes long, and it mostly focuses on the love triangle between the characters played by Powell, Clive, and Best.
William Powell is his usually smooth self as Tennant. He gives the Captain plenty of dash and vigor (when he reports to headquarters for his new assignment, he struts into the place like he owns it). One can understand why Norah would still have feelings for him. But Edna Best as Norah doesn't seem like the type of woman the fast-living Tennant might be interested in. Best (who was the female lead in the Hitchcock's 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) comes off as prim and proper here, and somewhat fragile.
Colin Clive, with his somewhat dour personality, makes a great opposite to William Powell. Clive's Kerr is resolute and fixated on doing his job. It's a bit of a surprise to see Clive engage in gunfights and chases, but he handles himself well as a man of action. Once he finds out about his wife's past relationship with Tennant, he changes into a disconsolate mope. Despite the two actor's different approaches, Powell and Clive are very good on screen together (they actually come off better together than any one of them do with Edna Best). According to Greg Mank in his fantastic biography of Clive, the character of Kerr was originally supposed to be played by Warren William. In my mind William would have been far too much like Powell.
William Powell, Edna Best, and Halliwell Hobbes in THE KEY
The supporting cast is filled with the type of fine character actors one expects to see in a movie made during this time period in Hollywood, such as Donald Crisp, Halliwell Hobbes, and J.M. Kerrigan.
THE KEY is a well-made, decent film, but it is not spectacular. The major part of the story is taken up with the romantic triangle, while the historical situation gets put to the side. The leading players and the director do make it notable, and the short running time prevents it from overstaying its welcome.
Monday, July 29, 2019
Quentin Tarantino's latest film, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, is a hard movie to review. For one thing, I don't want to reveal the ending for those who haven't seen it--and the climax really deserves its own separate discussion anyway.
There's also the fact that you can't really compare the film with anything else in theaters right now. It's a near-three hour trip through Tarantino's personal flashback fantasy. Set in 1969 Hollywood, the movie is saturated with the music and pop culture of the period. When it does come out on home video, it would help if there is a text commentary which points out and explains all the references.
Tarantino, due to his celebrity filmmaker status, has been allowed to create (note that I didn't say recreate) a time and place that he definitely wants to spend as much time in as possible. The main characters in this film, Leonardo DiCaprio as struggling actor Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stuntman/gopher/best friend Cliff Booth, are the type of guys I think Tarantino would have wanted to have been. A long, long time is spent covering the minutiae of the duo's everyday life, and one can't help but think that Tarantino might have spent even more hours doing nothing but showing the men meandering around Hollywood. DiCaprio and Pitt do have excellent chemistry together.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
Rick and Cliff's misadventures alternate with the activities of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who just so happens to be Rick's neighbor. While Rick and Cliff are figments of Tarantino's imagination, Sharon Tate most certainly did exist. Here, she's not so much a character as she is a mini-skirted symbol of late 60s free-spirited glamour. Sharon's ultimate real-life fate hangs over the entire movie, and gives it an underlying tension.
How Tarantino resolves to deal with that fate has already spawned much internet discussion. It is up to the individual viewer to decide whether the director is honoring the late actress or trivializing her demise.
I liked ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, but one has to realize that I am a person that would much rather watch a movie or TV show from 1969 than those made in 2019. I'm also the type of person that will get references to people like Andrew V. McLaglen and Antonio Margheriti, and appreciate "appearances" in the film by Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen. For those who have very little knowledge of 1960s American entertainment, the movie may be a confusing drag.
One thing I do have to give Tarantino credit for--he's put himself into a position where he can tell the stories he wants to tell, exactly the way he wants to tell them. You may not like the man, or his movies--but in the end he makes the films he wants to make, regardless of mainstream tastes.
Saturday, July 27, 2019
If there was any actor that truly fit the definition of "cult movie star", it was Klaus Kinski. Whether it was his looks, his temperament, his lifestyle, or his professional choices, there was nothing mainstream about him. The man made several appearances in German Krimis, Spaghetti Westerns, and low-low budget sci-fi flicks. He also had a long and tumultuous personal and professional relationship with director Werner Herzog, which enabled Kinski to give extraordinary, world-renowned performances in such films as AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD and NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE. Kinski's immense acting talent was matched by his ability to cause controversy at every point in his life. Troy Howarth ably covers all of this in his book REAL DEPRAVITIES--THE FILMS OF KLAUS KINSKI, published by Wildside/Kronos Books. (This review pertains to the standard edition of the volume.)
The first great impression Kinski made upon me as an actor was his role in David Lean's film version of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, which ironically may have been the most mainstream production he ever appeared in. Kinski has a very, very small part, and very little screen time, as a anarchist being sent to a labor camp during the chaos of the Russian Revolution--but even while chained to a cot in a overcrowded train car, he totally dominates the scene. His anger, sadness, and fury at his situation are there for all to see--it's as if the suffering of the entire Russian population is etched on his face. When Kinski proclaims "I am the only free man on this train!!!" you know exactly what he means, and you never forget him for the rest of the film.
Howarth pays tribute to Kinski's unique and eclectic abilities with this fine book. Just watching most of these films must have been a chore--many of them are incredibly obscure. The author covers all of them, and while he is obviously a fan of his subject, he's not afraid to be critical of the movies, or the actor. Kinski often took part in a mediocre project just for a quick paycheck, and at times his performances would suffer as a result. Howarth does not hesitate to point this out.
Every film Kinski appeared in is covered, along with credit & plot information, and the actor's role in the production. Howarth also examines Kinski's television appearances, certain movies he had a chance to appear in, and documentaries which concern the actor. A small biography of Kinski is provided. Stories about the man's notorious personal life are legion, but Howarth avoids taking the easy route and wallowing in tabloid gossip. The author only comments on Kinski's off-screen eccentricities when it directly concerns a particular film under discussion.
The book is illustrated with several black & white movie stills and photos of Kinski. The volume is over 500 pages, and you more than get your money's worth. Howarth presents cogent analysis of Kinski's films and career, while also making the book an entertaining and informative read.
REAL DEPRAVITIES--THE FILMS OF KLAUS KINSKI is a thorough examination of the movie career of a rather unique performer.
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Universal's 1955 THIS ISLAND EARTH is one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made. It's a magnificent, colorful adventure, bigger and bolder than any of the black & white sci-fi features the studio made during the same time period.
It is also never really been given its proper appreciation on home video, and it has undeservedly been the focus of the theatrical version of a snarky TV show. Thankfully Shout Factory--who has been churning out special edition Blu-rays of classic fantastic films like mad recently--redresses the balance.
The Shout Factory Blu-ray of THIS ISLAND EARTH presents the movie in two different formats: one in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and another in 1.33:1. There's also two different soundtrack choices: one in original Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, and DTS-HD audio.
Shout Factory says that they have used a new 4K scan of the original film elements, and both aspect ratios look magnificent. I prefer the 1.85:1, especially with the Stereophonic mix, which is very vibrant.
There's a ton of extras on the disc, including a documentary on the making of the film which lasts about 50 minutes long. A short interview with Luigi Cozzi (director of STARCRASH) is featured. In it Cozzi compares THIS ISLAND EARTH to Bram Stoker's tale of DRACULA (and he actually makes a very good case for it). Cozzi unfortunately also brings up the urban legend which claims that director Jack Arnold "saved" the movie in post-production.
There's two excellent audio commentaries by Robert Skotak and David Schecter. Skotak's talk focuses on all the general aspects of the entire production, while Schecter covers the music used for the film.
A "Trailers From Hell" episode on THIS ISLAND EARTH is on the disc, with commentary by Joe Dante. There's also multiple still galleries, with many photos of the famed Metaluna Mutant. (The people who complain how the Mutant shouldn't have been in the film are probably the same people who complain about the demon being in NIGHT OF THE DEMON.) There's also reversible disc cover sleeve art.
This is another outstanding release by Shout Factory, but what makes it even more important is the movie being presented. THIS ISLAND EARTH has deserved this kind of treatment for a long, long time--and it has finally gotten it.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
I'm currently reading Troy Howarth's book REAL DEPRAVITIES: THE FILMS OF KLAUS KINSKI. It's a fascinating volume, as Howarth covers all sorts of obscure productions. Klaus Kinski was the ultimate cult movie actor--nothing was mainstream about him, whether he was on or off the screen.
One Klaus Kinski movie that I recently have been able to see for the first time is the 1967 Italian/German MAN, PRIDE, AND VENGEANCE. In some cases the film has been classified as a Spaghetti Western--but in my opinion it is not one. Like most European Westerns, it was made in Spain...but its story is actually set in Spain, not the 19th Century American frontier. In fact, it is a cinematic adaptation of the story that forms the basis of the novel and opera CARMEN.
Franco Nero stars as Spanish soldier Jose, who becomes infatuated with a enticing gypsy girl named Carmen (Tina Aumont). Jose's obsession leads him to kill one of his officers in a fight over the woman. Jose becomes a wanted man, and winds up joining a band of outlaws that Carmen knows...a band that includes her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski). Jose hopes to steal enough money to allow him and Carmen to go away to North America, but this dysfunctional relationship can only end one way.
MAN, PRIDE, AND VENGEANCE was referred to as a Django film in Germany, to take advantage of the European popularity of the character also played by Franco Nero. If you take a glance at any of the posters for the film, or its trailer, you'd swear it was a typical Spaghetti Western. But if you're looking for the wild action sequences and the outlandish characters and situations the genre is known for, you won't find them here. MAN, PRIDE, AND VENGEANCE is more of a historical melodrama and character study. Director and co-screenwriter Luigi Bazzoni keeps a measured pace throughout the film, taking time to establish the dynamic between Jose and Carmen.
The fact that the character of Jose doesn't come off as weak or pathetic is due in large part to the strong screen presence of Franco Nero. But make no mistake, Carmen definitely holds the upper hand in the relationship. In the beginning of the story Jose is a clean-cut by-the-book soldier, but as he becomes more and more besotted by Carmen he gets scruffier and scruffier (see picture above). Jose's appearance at the end of the movie closely resembles Franco Nero's usual Spaghetti Western persona. At one point a character tells Jose, in reference to his determination to win Carmen, that he is suffering an illness...and the man does have a sort of addiction to the woman. Jose knows full well what kind of woman Carmen is, and how he is destroying himself by going after her--but he literally can't help it. Franco Nero was different than most Spaghetti Western stars in that he could portray great emotional distress in a forceful and believable manner.
Any adaptation of the Carmen story needs a seductive female lead, and Tina Aumont here more than fits the bill. In his Kinski book Troy Howarth mentions that Aumont may have been too young for the role, but I don't think so. She has a spoiled brat quality that fits the character well. As for Klaus Kinski, he doesn't show up until about halfway through the film, and he doesn't stick around too long. He does bring his usual intensity and surly attitude. The revelation that Kinski's Garcia is Carmen's husband is a shock to Jose as well as the audience. Kinski gets to participate in a couple of knock-down drag-out fights with Nero, and these brawls have a rough, disorganized vibe to them.
MAN. PRIDE, AND VENGEANCE has impressive widescreen color cinematography, with several examples of unique and striking compositions. The director of photography was Camillo Bazzoni, the director's brother, and the camera operator was none other than Vittorio Storaro, who would go on to become a legendary cinematographer himself. The atmospheric, Spanish influenced music score was composed by Carlo Rustichelli, and it's the exact opposite from the Morricone type of sound one expects.
MAN, PRIDE, AND VENGEANCE is not an action-packed, over-the-top Euro Western. It is a quite effective historical melodrama, with impressive leading performances. Spaghetti Western fans may find it to be a intriguing alternative.
Saturday, July 20, 2019
The 1945 British film DEAD OF NIGHT is the granddaddy of all modern horror anthology films. The five tales presented in it have influenced numerous other movies and television episodes. The influence of DEAD OF NIGHT has been so pervasive that those now who see it for the first time may feel that it's overly familiar. Kino has just released the movie on Region A Blu-ray.
DEAD OF NIGHT is compared to similar horror movies made later on, but it should stand on its on. It was made by the famed Ealing Studios, and those who worked on the film--in front of and behind the camera--were among the best talent in the British film industry at that time. The film was definitely designed as a chiller, but it has more of a mainstream feel to it than the typical horror movie product.
All five of the stories in the film still hold up well today, even the humorous segment involving a couple of golfing buddies. The final segment, which stars Michael Redgrave as a tormented ventriloquist, remains the best, and it leads to a shattering conclusion (if the end of the movie can properly be called a conclusion).
A long time ago I owned a very cheap VHS copy of DEAD OF NIGHT that featured a very bad print of the film. Whenever I have seen it on TV, it has never looked or sounded very well. The disc cover for Kino's Blu-ray says that this is a new restoration in 4K from original archival materials. I would say that this print is quite good, but there are visible scratches from time to time. Certain parts of the movie look sharper than others. The sound quality is mediocre--at times music and dialogue seem distorted and muffled. If you are not used to listening to English accents, you may find it difficult to understand what the characters are saying at points.
Included on the disc is a 75 minute program featuring a number of talking heads who thoroughly discuss all aspects of the production of DEAD OF NIGHT. Among those taking part are Kim Newman and John Landis. The overall discussion is very insightful and wide ranging, and it is well worth watching. The discussion carries no type of credits whatsoever, but it appears to have been put together recently. Tim Lucas also contributes another of his excellent commentaries.
The sound quality on this disc of DEAD OF NIGHT is not perfect, but Kino should be commended for putting out a decent version of this movie.
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
CENTRAL PARK, from 1932, is one of those Warner Bros. films from the early thirties that is short on running time but stuffed with plot. Despite being just short of an hour, there's enough situations to fill about three different movies.
What makes this film stand out is that it is entirely set in the famed New York City landmark. It begins with a montage sequence showing several citizens going about their business inside the park (a camera unit must have been sent to New York for this footage). We then meet a couple down on their luck: Dot (Joan Blondell), who can't find a job on the stage, and Rick (Wallace Ford), who was part of a rodeo show that closed down. The two take an instant liking to each other (as short as this movie is, they can't spend too much time getting to know one another), and it appears that their luck is about to change. Rick makes the acquaintance of a friendly cop (Guy Kibbee), who tips him off about some police motorcycles that need washed, and Dot is chosen to do undercover work for a couple of detectives. Of course, the "detectives" are really some gangsters who intend to use Dot in a scheme to steal money raised for a charity bazaar at the Central Park Casino.
If that isn't enough...the friendly cop has only one week to go until retirement, which means you can probably figure out what's going to happen to him. The cop also has very bad eyesight...which means he can't see the crazed former employee of the Central Park Zoo as he takes vengeance upon an ex-coworker by throwing him into a lion's cage so he can be mauled! The lion winds up getting away, while Rick and the cop chase and battle the gangsters throughout the park.
CENTRAL PARK doesn't have the salacious aspects of most Pre-Code films, but it is rather brutal. The mauling sequence goes on for quite a while, and there's a couple of intense fistfights. There's also a car chase and multiple shoot-outs, in which various police officers are shot and killed.
The sub-plot with the mad ex-zoo employee is rather striking--as played by John Wray (who was one of the murder suspects in DOCTOR X) the guy is so loony he's even sporting a maniacal leer on his wanted poster picture. As Wray goes about his gruesome business against his former co-worker, he laughs and grins wildly, making a potent impression. Surprisingly, Wray's ultimate fate takes place off-screen, and is mentioned as an aside at the end of the film--was there a sequence involving him that was cut out?
Joan Blondell doesn't really get much to do here--she doesn't even have any snappy comebacks to toss off. She's an appealing presence as always, but she's not used to her full advantage. Wallace Ford does well with his ordinary guy character (Rick's rodeo experience winds up coming in handy). Ford would play the same type of role in several much-lower budget movies in his acting career.
Guy Kibbee gets the best part in the film as the affable middle-aged cop. As soon as we know about his situation, we know how he's going to wind up--but Kibbee is still able to make a predictable role likable and even poignant.
CENTRAL PARK was directed by John G. Adolfi, a man I have very little knowledge of. Adolfi did direct a number of films with the distinguished actor George Arliss, and he also helmed Joan Blondell's screen debut, SINNER'S HOLIDAY. (The latter fact makes it even more puzzling why she isn't given more of a chance to shine here.) It's hard to judge Adolfi's talents on this story, simply because it moves so fast and has so much going on in it. None of the characters are well-developed. even Guy Kibbee's cop. There's a sequence in which the lion gets into the Central Park Casino and starts chasing numerous patrons around, but it's put together in a sloppy fashion. Some of the shots certainly look dangerous, but one feels more peril could have been mined from it. (In all fairness, with the state of assembly-line Hollywood film making at the time, Adolfi might have had nothing to do with the sequence.)
CENTRAL PARK is made for movie buffs who have about an hour to kill. Just about every little-known Pre-Code film is now branded as a "unsung classic"--but CENTRAL PARK is an okay time-filler, nothing spectacular. Even Joan Blondell fans might be disappointed that she doesn't have a bigger showcase. It is a reminder of how fast films moved in the early 1930s.
Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Frank Dello Stritto's CARL DENHAM'S GIANT MONSTERS is a follow up to his magnificent book A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS: THE TESTAMENT OF LAWRENCE STEWART TALBOT. Both volumes are "biographies" of famous fantastic film characters.
CARL DENHAM'S GIANT MONSTERS covers the life of the man who captured King Kong from Skull Island in 1933, as depicted in the famed RKO film released that year. Denham was played by Robert Armstrong in the film and its sequel, THE SON OF KONG. But according to the author, Denham had all sorts of amazing adventures before and after his encounter with Kong.
Dello Stritto offers the premise that while he was working for an oil company in the Far East, he and his wife encountered Carl Denham on a small island in Indonesia during the 1970s. Denham was still hiding out from people who blamed him for the death and destruction wrought by Kong after the giant ape's rampage in New York City. Denham became friends with the couple and proceeded to tell them about his extraordinary encounters.
Like his volume on Larry Talbot, Dello Stritto uses numerous characters and incidents from various 20th Century horror and science fiction films to flesh out Denham's story. Some of Denham's acquaintances are pop culture icons, while others might require a trip to the IMDB to figure out who they are. No matter who Denham winds up meeting during his story, the circumstances behind it all are endlessly inventive and creative, due to the author's cunning imagination.
This book reveals that as a young man, Denham was involved with Theodore Roosevelt's exploration of the Amazon River in the mid-1910s. Denham would return to the area a decade later as part of the Professor Challenger expedition depicted in the silent classic THE LOST WORLD. Denham's thirst for adventure would never fully be quenched, even after the disastrous results of his bringing King Kong to America. He would accompany many other well-known movie explorers, and be quizzed by any number of cinematic scientists, mad or otherwise.
Dello Stritto references such disparate films as MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, the 1941 THE MALTESE FALCON, and KONGA. He also slips in some rather clever links to the 1976 and 2005 versions of KING KONG. But this book is more than just a collection of fanboy in-jokes. The author goes out of his way to make Denham's story seem as if it really happened. He portrays the older Denham as a man who, at times, still has some of his old bravado--but he also is haunted and humbled by his actions during the Kong affair. (While reading this book, I couldn't help but hear Robert Armstrong's voice when Denham speaks.)
CARL DENHAM'S GIANT MONSTERS is published by Cult Movie Press, and, at 500 pages long, you certainly get your money's worth. The book has a clean and concise design by Tom Jackson, and it is filled with many movie stills which represent the numerous personages Denham comes into contact with. The reader even gets a map illustrating King Kong's travels in New York City!
Most film buffs will definitely love CARL DENHAM'S GIANT MONSTERS. The premise is fascinating, and Dello Stritto does a masterful job in connecting all the dots and bringing back memories of dozens of fantastic films. Frank should have won a Rondo Award for A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS...and he better win one for CARL DENHAM'S GIANT MONSTERS.