Tuesday, December 31, 2019
Time once again to list my top five Blu-rays of the year (no DVDs this time).
This is the eighth year in a row I have done a list like this, so, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the drill. All the entries in this list had to have been released in the calendar year, and they are all ones I have purchased.
There's no point in going into my annual "I spend way too much money on movies" rant. There were a number of notable releases I did not get, such as the Criterion Godzilla set and the Shout Factory Abbott & Costello set.
Speaking of Shout Factory, I bought so much of their product this year they should just give me the Abbott & Costello set. In my last post I mentioned how many of the company's Hammer releases I bought, and they had a number of enticing Universal products as well. Shout Factory makes this list with a non-Hammer title.
1. WAR AND PEACE from Criterion
A mammoth, four-part, 422 minute Soviet epic based on the Leo Tolstoy novel. Sergei Bondarchuk's grand combination of the majestic and the intimate was one I had never seen before. I wrote a full post on it in July.
2. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD from Kino
It seems like every year a Mario Bava release winds up on this list. Kino does justice to Bava's phantasmagorical adventure by providing three different versions of the film, all based on a gorgeous looking print. I wrote a post on it in October.
3. L'ARGENT from Flicker Alley
A stupendous 1928 silent production from France, this is a film I literally had no knowledge of. It's a sweeping tale of greed and power, with the added bonus of a wonderfully sultry performance from the mysterious beauty of METROPOLIS, Brigitte Helm. I extensively covered it in September.
4. THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR and THE INDIAN TOMB from Film Movement
I didn't get around to writing a full post on this, but I should have. It's a two-film colorful action adventure story set in a fantastical version of India. The films were made in the late 1950s, and they were directed by Fritz Lang. They are sort of a throwback to the large-scale super productions Lang made in Germany during the silent era. I had never seen these, and both films are entertaining, if a bit on the slow side (they also have no humor whatsoever). Both films look spectacular on this release (star Debra Paget in particular looks unbelievably stunning). Film Movement went all out to provide a proper showcase for this pair of films.
5. THIS ISLAND EARTH from Shout Factory
There are any number of Shout Factory releases I could have put on this list, but I chose this one, simply because this science-fiction classic deserved the special treatment it got on this release. I wrote a full post on it in July.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
Looking over my blog posts for 2019, I noticed that I wrote nine different reviews for Hammer movies on Blu-ray released by Shout Factory. That still doesn't even cover all of the Hammer Shout Factory releases I bought this year.
I didn't buy every Hammer movie released by Shout Factory. I didn't get THE VENGEANCE OF SHE, or LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, or SCARS OF DRACULA. Ironically all three of those titles wound up on a post I wrote in 2018 listing my least favorite Hammer films. I also have not purchased TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER.
Among the Hammer Shout Factory Blu-rays I did not get around to writing reviews on are QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT. The latter is one of the best Hammer films ever made, while the former is one of the best ever science-fiction films, period. These two movies are held in such high esteem that I seriously wondered what more I could say about them.
The Shout Factory Blu-rays for each look fantastic, and they are filled with extras, especially QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT has a bonus version of the film with "updated" special effects that were added a few years ago. I had never seen this version, and I have to admit that the new FX (which were quite minor) were not as annoying as I thought they would be. (I still prefer the original version, hands down.)
DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE is one of the best Hammer films from the early 1970s, due to Brian Clemens' witty & stylish script, and what I consider to be Martine Bestwicke's best screen performance. The movie looks great on this Blu-ray, and among the extras is a new interview with Martine. (I wrote a full post on this movie in September of 2017.)
All the movies I have mentioned here have reverse cover sleeve artwork, and brand new commentaries. Most of the new talks on the Shout Factory Hammer Blu-rays feature some sort of combination of Ted Newsom, Constantine Nasr, and Steve Haberman, or one of them individually. (Bruce Hallenbeck does the commentary for DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE.) It would be nice if Shout Factory got some other genre experts involved in these talks (there's plenty of Hammer fanatics out there). This series of Hammer releases also contain vintage commentaries, and these are very important, since they usually feature artists who actually worked on these productions. (Sadly, many of these artists have passed away since their commentaries were recorded.)
Shout Factory has more Hammer releases in store for the future, and that's great news for those who own Region A Blu-ray players. When one also takes into account the company's Universal and Val Lewton releases, it must be said that they have cornered the market when it comes to classic horror on home video in 2019.
Wednesday, December 25, 2019
WARNING: If you have not seen THE RISE OF SKYWALKER yet, you shouldn't read this.
The cinematic Star Wars Skywalker saga has apparently reached its end. I say "apparently" because, didn't we think that after RETURN OF THE JEDI, and then after REVENGE OF THE SITH?
There's no way Disney is going to let the classic Star Wars characters go unused--no matter what the public or critical reception is to the company's product, they've all made a ton of money. There is a sense of Star Wars fatigue going around, but that isn't stopping anyone from viewing new product. But it does seem that now it's almost an obligation to watch new Star Wars titles, an idea that has been covered by an excellent article on the Flickering Myth website.
I have very mixed overall feelings about the Disney Star Wars trilogy. I have far more appreciation for the company's other Star Wars output. I loved ROGUE ONE, and I liked SOLO. STAR WARS: REBELS and THE MANDALORIAN are excellent shows, the latter in particular.
Notice, however, that the non-trilogy titles fit into the established Star Wars Universe, rather than define it. The non-trilogy titles are effective additions to what I know and love about Star Wars overall.
When it comes to the Star Wars Universe, my affection for the Original Trilogy is going to override everything else. I saw these films at a certain age and point in my life that can never be recaptured. The three films of the Original Trilogy are more important to me than any other filmed entertainment. Whatever is branded as "Star Wars" is going to have to hold up against my feelings for the Original Trilogy, and I make no apologies for that.
When I heard the news that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm, and that they were planning to make new Star Wars movies, I felt a bit uneasy about the prospect. Essentially, whatever they were going to come up with was never going to live up to my personal idea of what Star Wars is, or what it should be.
Timothy Zahn's "Heir to the Empire" novels, released in the early 1990s, cover a lot of the same ground that the Disney Star Wars Trilogy does. The problems of the galaxy after the fall of the Empire, Han and Leia having children, Luke's doubts about continuing the Jedi Order, a possible resurrection of the Emperor--all these elements are in the books. I started reading theses novels, but I never finished the series, because it just didn't seem like "real" Star Wars to me.
That's basically how I feel about the Disney Star Wars Trilogy--it just doesn't feel like real Star Wars to me. I understand that's a very simplistic line of reasoning, but there it is.
The biggest problem I have with the Disney Trilogy is that it brings back the "rag-tag group of rebels versus powerful evil regime" narrative of the Original Trilogy. We've been down that road before, and we saw it to the end--but now, it didn't really end, because we've got the same type of conflict, with X-Wings, TIE fighters, even planet-destroying devices.
This is a war that was fought already in the Original Trilogy, but now we have to go through it again. I'm well aware that people will say, "That's what Star Wars is all about!!" Okay, maybe....but when you are dealing within the genres of science-fiction and fantasy, your have unlimited access to ideas and concepts. Why do something that has been done before? I understand that when it comes to a Star Wars film, people expect space battles, and blaster shootouts, and dramatic conflict, but there's untold ways of doing it.
The Disney Star Wars Trilogy also shows that Han and Leia had a bad marriage, and had a son who went to the Dark Side, while Luke has become a grumpy old man who has decided to hide out on a backwater planet. That's not exactly how I wanted my heroes to wind up. The Disney Trilogy also shows Han, Luke, and Leia dying onscreen--that's not exactly something I wanted to see either.
THE FORCE AWAKENS is basically a remake of the very first STAR WARS. I know that Disney wanted to give the fans something familiar--but in my mind it was too familiar. If I wanted to see a story that reminded me of my favorite movie of all time--I'd go and watch my favorite movie of all time.
THE LAST JEDI is one of the most weirdly constructed films I have ever seen. It's as if Rian Johnson decided to spend all of his time setting up the audience and pulling the rug out from under them over and over again. If you want to show off that way while making a low-budget independent film, fine, but I don't believe that works in the context of a Star Wars story.
THE RISE OF SKYWALKER has the "everything but the kitchen sink" attitude of most big-budget 21st Century franchise films. About 30 minutes of the movie could have been cut without affecting the main plot. It has my favorite scene in the entire Disney Trilogy--the lightsaber duel between Rey and Kylo on the Death Star ruins. But the revelation that Rey is the Emperor's granddaughter brings up all sorts of questions. It explains why she has so much power (something that I felt needed to be addressed), but the very idea of the Emperor having offspring is a huge plot point that needs to be fully explained, and you can bet it will, in a future Disney production.
Is there anything I like about the Disney Trilogy? Well, John Williams' music is still great....actually, Adam Driver is very good as Kylo Ren (although I still can't help but think of him as Han Solo's punk kid).
Most of the other new characters in the Disney Trilogy didn't make that much of an impact on me. Daisy Ridley is okay as Rey, but because her character spends most of the trilogy as a total mystery, it's hard to have a connection with her. (I think that if we knew that she was a Palpatine all along, her character would have been more interesting.)
Poe, Finn, Rose, all the other ancillary characters of the trilogy--they never seemed all that important to me. Each film in the trilogy strains to give them something to do, because their characters are not very interesting.
When it comes to the villains, the First Order may be an offshoot of the Galactic Empire, but they come off as a rather lame organization. They are constantly derided and made fun of throughout the entire Disney Trilogy, to the point where they are almost on the same level as the Trade Federation in the Star Wars prequels. (Having THE LAST JEDI start off with General Hux being the victim of a prank phone call doesn't do much to help define the villains as a viable threat.) Characters like Hux and Captain Phasma attempt to act sinister, but they never really accomplish anything. The Galactic Empire certainly had its issues (such as the average stormtrooper not being able to hit the broadside of a barn with a laser blast), but you believed they were dangerous....the First Order seems silly in comparison.
By now I'm sure you all get how I feel about the Disney Trilogy. Instead of going on and on, I'll wrap things up by making one more point.
Disney is a billion-dollar corporation, and as a corporation their main goal is not to make Star Wars fans happy--it is to get as much value as they can out of the Star Wars brand. There's plenty of individual artists involved in the Disney Trilogy, such as J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Lawrence Kasdan, but in the end these films were created by a corporation.
Before Disney took over Lucasfilm, everything involved with Star Wars had to go through George Lucas. You can say what you want about George--heaven knows I certainly have--but no matter what, it was his universe, he was the boss, the creator.
With Disney controlling Star Wars, there is no overall creator. We see this in the fact that many of the Disney Star Wars productions have dealt with reshoots, replaced directors, etc. These films seem to be made by a committee, with the result that the Disney Trilogy, at least, has a haphazard overall feel to it.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, Disney has made some great Star Wars product. But I think it would be in their best interest to focus all their Star Wars efforts on one single project at a time, and not worry about having to meet a certain schedule.
And forget about future trilogies...and let the Skywalker family rest.
Saturday, December 21, 2019
Earlier this year Shout Factory began issuing Blu-ray sets of various classic Universal horror films. One movie that they decided to give an individual release to is the 1932 version of Edgar Allan Poe's famous tale, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.
Universal's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has for the most part been looked upon as a stepchild to the studio's more celebrated original 1931 versions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN. Director Robert Florey and actor Bela Lugosi had both been attached to FRANKENSTEIN during its pre-production, but they wound up being assigned to the adaptation of the Poe story instead. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE went through several rewrites and even some re-shoots, and the result is a rather disjointed affair.
Robert Florey and his cinematographer, the legendary Karl Freund, do give plenty of expressionist atmosphere to the film's 1845 Paris setting. But they also spend way too much time on romantic leads Sidney Fox (who is billed above Lugosi on the opening main credits) and Leon Waycoff (known later in his acting career as Leon Ames). Fox and Ames make one pine for David Manners and Helen Chandler.
Far and away the major highlight of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is Bela Lugosi, who literally is a show in himself as the mad Dr. Mirakle. Sporting a dark frock coat, high hat, unibrow, and wild perm, Bela gives one of his most magnificent performances. Sadly, the script does not take full advantage of this--Bela is killed off before the final scenes. Lugosi's Mirakle is not only a proponent of evolutionary theory, he's also determined to mate his gorilla, Erik, with a woman. Charles Gemora plays Erik in an ape costume, but the effect is ruined by many closeups of an actual chimpanzee which are haphazardly inserted throughout the story.
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is definitely a product of the Pre-Code era, with such elements as evolution, cross-breeding, and Parisian women of the streets ("Profession?" "Yes.") Lugosi's Mirakle isn't so much turned on by the leading lady as by the fact that his gorilla is turned on by her. The production is a strange combination of the sordid and silly, with Bela being its saving grace.
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has been released several times before on home video, but this transfer on the new Blu-ray is stunning, with very sharp and distinct black & white picture quality. The sound is sharp and distinct as well.
The extras are a rather murky re-release trailer and two brand new commentaries. Esteemed classic horror film historian Greg Mank gives a thorough and entertainingly informative discussion on the film in his own inimitable way. Lugosi expert Gary D. Rhodes spends most of his talk on the film's various antecedents, such as the work of Edgar Allan Poe, the evolution debate in early 20th Century American society, and the uses of gorilla characters in silent cinema. The reverse of the disc cover features an alternate poster for the film.
I wouldn't rank MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE among the best of the Universal horror classics, but it deserves a place in American Gothic cinema history simply due to Bela Lugosi. I think Shout Factory recognized this, and that is why they just didn't put it out as part of a box set.
Friday, December 20, 2019
There really isn't much I can say about this movie without giving out major spoilers, so this is going to be short.
My first impression of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is that I think it is a better film than THE LAST JEDI (which isn't saying much). I would even say that it's probably the best of the Disney Star Wars trilogy, but I'm not exactly giving it a ringing endorsement.
It has a very inconsistent tone, it's overlong, it has about ten different climaxes, and there are times when it moves so fast you can't tell what is going on. In other words, it's a typical 21st Century action/sci-fi/adventure/fantasy movie.
There are some good moments mixed in, which I don't want to delve into for those who have not seen it yet. The film makes plenty of references to the sacred Original Trilogy (maybe too many). There's almost as many dead characters in the movie as live ones.
The question is, how will I feel about it after I've seen it a couple more times? Whenever I see a new Star Wars movie the day it opens, I'm always caught up in the excitement surrounding it. The questions this movie answers actually lead to even more questions...every part of this script is going to be hashed over again and again on the internet for years to come.
I wish I could go into more detail about how I feel about it right now, but I will be writing a more advanced analysis of my thoughts in about a week or so. I will also be writing a future post on my feelings on the Disney Star Wars Trilogy overall.
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Martin Scorsese's preoccupation with American corruption continues with THE IRISHMAN.
I had the fortuitous opportunity to watch this film in an actual theater, the Browning Cinema on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. I was glad that I was able to see it in this way--Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and his movies should be seen on the big screen.
THE IRISHMAN is a very long, very involved tale of organized crime and violence in post-WWII America. As such, it is being compared with other Scorsese gangster epics like GOODFELLAS and CASINO. THE IRISHMAN, however, is a very different picture. It has more nuance and subtlety--it's not a movie that hits you upside the head. There's plenty of horrific acts, but they are presented in a matter-of-fact, almost banal, manner.
Robert De Niro plays the title character, a Teamster truck driver named Frank Sheeran, who almost by chance becomes involved with organized crime. Frank's abilities enable him to become a bodyguard/confidant of powerful Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Al Pacino has the showier role as Hoffa, and he's excellent, but Robert De Niro brilliantly carries the film (he's in nearly every single scene, and when he isn't, you hear his voice narrating what is going on.)
Some may say that this is the type of role Robert De Niro has played many times before, but his Frank, as opposed to most of the other gangster characters the actor has portrayed, isn't particularly ambitious, nor does he thirst for power. As is made clear by references to his military service in WWII, Frank is a "good soldier", a man whose main talent is doing what his bosses tell him to do. The last part of the film shows just how far Frank is willing to take orders, and the price he pays for doing so.
THE IRISHMAN is not a slam-bang crime thriller--it's more a melancholy observation on modern American history. There's an overall sadness to this film, since it shows how corruption and fraud have permeated nearly all facets of American life--commerce, big business, labor, and of course politics. We see organized crime figures fight for power, die violently, or grow old in jail...and the movie asks, "What was it all for? What was gained in the end??"
Some have complained about the length of the movie, which is about three and a half hours (during the screening I attended a number of what was obviously Notre Dame students kept checking their phones). The story does lose a little steam at the end, but I think this was Scorsese's intention. This is a film that isn't lengthy just on purpose--there's a huge story here to tell, and Scorsese takes his time in telling it. Steven Zaillian's magnificent script is one in which what isn't said is as important as what is. (This so-called "controversy" over the lack of dialogue for Anna Paquin's character is absolutely ridiculous.) Mention must also be made of Thelma Schoonmaker's bravura editing and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography. It's very easy to lose focus during a overlong superhero epic, but THE IRISHMAN demands the viewer's attention all the way through.
I have a feeling that THE IRISHMAN will be even more appreciated as years go by and people are able to see it multiple times. It is the best new film I have seen in a theater in 2019.
Sunday, December 8, 2019
MALTA STORY is a 1953 British WWII drama, dealing with a campaign during the conflict that many may not be familiar with.
The small island of Malta in the Mediterranean was the subject of unrelenting bombing attacks by the Axis powers, due to its serving as a base for British military forces. The story opens in 1942, with a Royal Air Force transport plane landing on the island in the middle of a heavy bombing raid. One of the passengers, a photo-reconnaissance pilot named Peter Ross (Alec Guinness), is supposed to go on to Cairo on the same plane, but the craft is destroyed while on the runway. The air commander of the island (Jack Hawkins) decides to use Ross to help Malta's beleaguered forces. The bombing of the island becomes more and more intense, and rumors begin of an upcoming invasion by Axis forces. The island's population gets some relief from a few convoys of supplies that barely make it through, while Ross falls for a beautiful Maltese girl (Muriel Pavlov) who works in a RAF operations room.
MALTA STORY is very much a "stiff upper lip" type of war tale that British filmmakers do so well. It is in black & white, and director Brian Desmond Hurst uses a semi-documentary style. There's plenty of real WWII footage spliced into the action, and the production is helped by location shooting on Malta, along with the use of real Spitfires (despite the fact that they are types made after 1942). The movie makes extensive use of models during the air battle sequences, and while these shots do not look realistic today, one must make allowances that this is a 65-year old film.
The movie's low-key, realistic tone extends to the actors and the storyline. Alec Guinness isn't a hot-shot flyboy--he's a soft-spoken photo-recon pilot (and archaeologist in civilian life) who never engages anyone in combat. If MALTA STORY had been a Hollywood film, Guinness' character would have been complaining about being stranded on the island, or he would have been arguing with his superiors, or he would have developed a rivalry with another pilot. None of that happens here--Guinness accepts his fate and gets on with the job, no matter what the circumstances. The only subplot in the movie that seems contrived is one involving Guinness' girlfriend's brother (but according to my research even this character was based on a historical one).
The script takes great pains to show the resiliency and courage of the Maltese people. It does this in a manner that avoids overly dramatic histrionics (although there are times where it seems the civilians are a bit too adjusted to being under a months-long siege). History buffs will appreciate how the movie relates the actual incidents involving the island in the Mediterranean theater of war in a clear and concise manner. (When Guinness has his first meeting with his new CO, Jack Hawkins goes to a map of the area and explains the situation, allowing the audience to understand as well).
Movie buffs will appreciate the supporting acting talent in MALTA STORY. Flora Robson plays the mother of Guinness' girlfriend, and several renowned character actors have very small roles, including Maurice Denham, Gordon Jackson, Geoffrey Keen, Sam Kydd, and Noel Willman.
MALTA STORY is a very good--and very British--WWII tale that doesn't have big moments that factor into other major war epics. The main character isn't a larger-than-life action hero who accomplishes things on his own--he's a quiet professional who is part of a team. The movie also goes against the grain in that it features an unexpectedly downbeat ending.
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1969) is a truly wild & wacky slice of Euro Gothic, a movie that is something of a cross between HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. I first saw it on "Son of Svengoolie" back in the 1980s. It's a mad movie monster romp, and now the film has been given an official Blu-ray release courtesy of Ronin Flix and Scorpion Releasing.
This production was known as LOS MONSTRUOS DEL TERROR in Spain, and that country was the birthplace of the film's writer and star, Paul Naschy. Horror film legend Naschy first played his signature role of Waldemar Daninsky, El Hombre Lobo, in the 1968 movie LA MARCA DEL HOMBRE LOBO, better known in the U.S. as FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR. ASSIGNMENT TERROR was meant to be a follow up to Naschy's werewolf debut.
Naschy (who wrote the script under his real name, Jacinto Molina) not only brought back the werewolf Daninsky, he also included a vampire, a mummy, and a sort-of Frankenstein Monster. He also decided to bring aliens into the plot as well. A group of beings from the planet Ummo are attempting to take over Earth by using legendary supernatural creatures. The small group of aliens, in human form, are led by Michael Rennie (who doesn't have Gort to help him this time around). As expected, the plan goes awry, due to the aliens being influenced by human emotions and the monsters being uncontrollable.
Naschy's script for ASSIGNMENT TERROR was quite ambitious, and the result is that the movie bites off more than it can chew. The production was beset by several difficulties, with multiple directors, budget problems, etc. Naschy sets up a number of promising ideas, but they are never properly carried out. The grey-faced vampire (who is not Dracula--he's referred to here as "Count Janos") isn't particularly threatening, and the green-faced Farancksalan Monster looks like something somebody whipped up for a comedy skit. This film's mummy is actually rather impressive, and he's blessed with the best makeup job out of all the creatures. Naschy is his usual energetic self as Waldemar the werewolf, and he gets to have a tragic romance with a lovely blonde played by Diana Sorel. Naschy also gets to fight both the mummy and the Farancksalan Monster (his battle with the undead Egyptian is very well done).
ASSIGNMENT TERROR featured an international cast--along with Michael Rennie, there's German-born cult actress Karin Dor, and Americans Patty Shepard and Craig Hill. The film should have turned out much better than it did, but it never seems to come together. It has abrupt changes in tone, and the characters discuss incidents that are not shown (one assumes that parts of the script were not filmed to save money). Despite all of its problems, I can't help but have a certain affection for it. It is goofy as all get out, but it's endearingly goofy. Paul Naschy truly loved classic horror cinema, and his enthusiasm for the genre cannot be questioned, even though circumstances many times went against him when he tried to pay tribute to it onscreen. ASSIGNMENT TERROR is a perfect Saturday afternoon or late night monster flick, and it should be judged in that manner. (Naschy's later horror films would be far more brutal and explicit.)
ASSIGNMENT TERROR is getting its official American widescreen home video debut with this Blu-ray (which is listed as Region A). The movie is uncut, and presented in a 2.40:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. This title has had several unlicensed releases, and there's many versions of it on YouTube, but this glorious transfer tops them all. It's quite colorful, and it also brings out the inherent weaknesses of the monster makeups. The Spanish dialogue track is provided in stereo, with English subtitles, along with the English dub track in mono.
There's many extras here, such as multiple alternate opening title sequences, and different trailers (including some from other Paul Naschy horror films). There's an extensive stills gallery, which showcases the many other titles the movie was known as in various countries. The reverse of the cover sleeve features an examination of the film's production history written by Mirek Lipinski.
The most important extra is an audio commentary by Euro Gothic expert Troy Howarth, who is the author of a book on Paul Naschy and his films. Howarth has a lot of ground to cover here, and he does it very effectively. He details the making of the film, the multinational cast, and he even covers Paul Naschy's overall film career. Howarth appreciates the film for what it is, but he also mentions the film's shortcomings without being too critical or sarcastic.
This is a fabulous release, giving an offbeat cult film the prime treatment it deserves. I ordered this Blu-ray direct from Ronin Flix, and I must mention their great service--I received the disc only a few days after I purchased it from the company's website.
Monday, December 2, 2019
I finally got to see the first four episodes of the Disney+ series THE MANDALORIAN over Thanksgiving weekend, courtesy of my brother Robert. (For those of you who are wondering, I have not subscribed to Disney+--if any of you would like to purchase it for me, go right ahead.)
THE MANDALORIAN is set in the Star Wars Universe, a few years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI. The series concerns the adventures of a galactic bounty hunter only known as--you guessed it--the Mandalorian (played by Pedro Pascal). The title character is a mysterious, taciturn fellow, and during the first four episodes the viewer is given almost no backstory about him (or her?), except for a few snippets here and there. The show was created by Jon Favreau, and he is the main writer on the early episodes.
Many have compared THE MANDALORIAN to a Western, and while that is apt, I would go further and compare it to a Spaghetti Western. The Mandalorian operates on dry, sparsely populated backwater planets that reminded me of the locations used in many a Euro Western. The title character, while laconic, is also deadly proficient in all sorts of weaponry. He's also quick witted, and the audience never really knows what he's all about--he's definitely influenced by Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. Reinforcing the Spaghetti Western vibe are the many quirky characters the Mandalorian encounters. The eclectic music score for the show, credited to Ludwig Goransson, is more Morricone than John Williams.
I'm not going to get into any plot details of the individual episodes, because I am sure that there will be those reading this post who have not seen the show yet. (If you've been on the internet at all during the past week or so, chances are you know way too much about it already.) I will say that THE MANDALORIAN has plenty of references to Star Wars lore--some obvious, some quite geeky. Episode Four is basically a retelling of the plot of SEVEN SAMURAI, with a bit of SHANE thrown in.
What I most appreciate about THE MANDALORIAN is that it avoids the rushed, overly-edited attitude of today's sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters. The multi-part format allows the show to take time to tell its story (so far the episodes have run about 35-40 minutes each). The more traditional editing style means the viewer also gets a chance to revel in the many impressive visual compositions each show has. While I was on Google looking up a image for this blog post, I saw a headline from The Hollywood Reporter that asked, "Why Is The Mandalorian So Slow?" My response to that is "Why are certain people so dumb?"
The show (so far) has a very "used universe" look and feel to it. This is a galaxy that has just been through a major war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, and things are still very much in flux. There is some CGI, but the show doesn't wallow in it--you never feel as if you are watching a video game.
I'm an original Star Wars fan--I have been obsessed with it since the very first film came out in 1977. THE MANDALORIAN, in my opinion, is a proper Star Wars entry. I'll even come right out and say it has more of a real Star Wars feel to me that either THE FORCE AWAKENS or THE LAST JEDI. When I first heard about the show I thought the main character was going to be nothing more than a Boba Fett clone, but this bounty hunter is much more than that.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
I haven't seen every movie made by Hammer Films. There's still plenty of titles that have eluded me, including most of the company's output before they produced THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I was able to partake in a personal Hammer debut last night, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel showed HYSTERIA, a 1965 film written & produced by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Freddie Francis.
HYSTERIA is part of a mini-series of black & white psychological thrillers, usually written by Sangster and directed by Francis, that were made at Hammer in the early 1960s. Other titles in the group include TASTE OF FEAR, PARANOIAC, MANIAC, and NIGHTMARE. The movies were influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO and Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE.
All the Hammer psychological thrillers share the same basic plot device--and if I revealed this plot device, I'd give away the twists for all the people who haven't seen these movies. (So I won't).
I own several books & magazines on Hammer Films, and I don't think I've read a positive review of HYSTERIA in any of them. It's not a bad film, but there's nothing in it that makes it extraordinary--especially if you've seen the other Hammer psychological thrillers (which are much better).
Robert Webber plays an American who is in London recuperating from a car crash. He is suffering from amnesia (the character is referred to as "Chris Smith"). Upon checking out of the hospital, Smith finds out his bills have been paid, and he's been set up in a luxury suite in a large apartment building. Smith's only clue to his past is a torn photo of a fashionable woman (whenever there's a man suffering from amnesia in a movie or a TV show, there's always a mysterious beautiful woman who holds the key to what is going on). Smith tries to track her down, only to be told that she's dead. But he keeps seeing her, and he keeps hearing strange voices while in his apartment--even though the rest of the building is supposedly empty. Of course, there's plenty of things going on that one doesn't expect (unless you've watched and read a lot of mysteries).
HYSTERIA doesn't have the typical Hammer cast. Robert Webber is more of a character actor than a leading man type. I've seen him in a lot of movies and TV shows from the 60s and 70s, and he almost always played a bad guy. He even has that type of vibe here, especially when he starts to "remember" and these thoughts are dramatized to the viewer--they show that Smith is something of a con man. An actress named Lelia Goldoni (who I am not familiar with) plays the "mystery woman", and the fine British character actor Maurice Denham steals the film as an eccentric private investigator who is hired by Smith. English Gothic fans will notice among the supporting cast Peter Woodthorpe (THE SKULL), Sue Lloyd (CORRUPTION), Jennifer Jayne (DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS), and, the man who played the Frankenstein Monster in the Freddie Francis-directed THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, Kiwi Kingston. (I don't wish to be mean, but he doesn't look so good without makeup either.)
What makes HYSTERIA a lesser Hammer entry is that it has a 60 minute plot that is stretched out to about 90 minutes. There's much footage of Robert Webber wandering around, looking puzzled. The scenes of Smith's "past" might be to make the audience doubt the man's intentions, but they also seem to exist to pad the story. Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox give the film a crisp, efficient look, but they're not able to get much suspense out of the script. The best idea in the movie is Smith living all by himself in a modern high-rise apartment complex. Personally I find that more creepy than having to stay in a lonely old house--but the film never really takes advantage of it (I think the main reason for Smith's living arrangements was to keep the budget down). There's also an attempt at a PSYCHO-like shower scene, but it's very underwhelming.
If you are familiar with this type of material HYSTERIA will hold no surprises for you. The main twist is easy to anticipate (at least it was for me). There's another twist at the end that should cause a viewer to rethink what they have just watched, but it just seems tacked on. A more interesting leading man might have helped (Oliver Reed, maybe?). This is probably the least of all of Hammer's psychological thrillers--it gets nowhere near the emotional level of its title.
Saturday, November 23, 2019
WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY is the American name for a 1961 Italian/Austrian production originally titled LYCANTHROPUS. The Euro horror has been given a special Blu-ray release courtesy of Severin Films.
WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY may be a silly title, but it's a memorable one, and it has enabled the film to have a long shelf life. Actually the movie isn't near as lurid as the title makes one expect (if it had been made about ten years later it certainly would have been far more explicit).
The film feels more like a German krimi thriller than a straight horror tale. Like most krimis, it is in black & white, and it's set in contemporary England (even though none of the cast or the locations look remotely English). The story contains murder mystery, science-fiction, and Gothic elements.
A English reformatory (not dormitory) for young girls is beset by a series of gruesome murders. The killings seem to have been perpetrated by a wolf--or was it a werewolf? There's plenty of suspects, all with secrets to hide--the handsome new teacher (Carl Schell), the suave headmaster (Curt Lowens), and the creepy caretaker (Luciano Pigozzi, aka Alan Collins, the "Italian Peter Lorre").
There's also a bevy of young beauties on display, even though the movie doesn't take full advantage of this. The lead female, played by Barbara Lass, takes it upon herself to find out what is going on, which makes her the prime potential victim.
The film's werewolf sports a rather effective makeup, and the increased visual detail on this Blu-ray allows one to get a greater appreciation of it. Director Paolo Heusch (billed as "Richard Benson") presents plenty of atmospheric nighttime sequences, and the original story comes from Eurocult veteran Ernesto Gastaldi.
On the back of this disc cover it is claimed that this transfer of the movie comes from a 2K scan of elements discovered in a Rome lab vault. It is a very good transfer, in anamorphic 1.66:1 screen ratio, and it's much better than the several public domain and YouTube versions of the movie. Two soundtracks are provided: English and Italian (with English subtitles). For some reason the Italian track has a much bolder sound than the English one. The uncut version of the film is presented on this disc, under the title LYCNATHROPUS, with Italian main credits.
Severin has loaded this release with extras, including the U.S. main titles, which includes a snippet of the novelty song "The Ghoul In School". American and Italian trailers are also here, along with a short interview with writer Ernesto Gastaldi, who discusses his work on the story.
This release comes with a CD that contains 30 minutes of the film's original soundtrack music by composer Armando Trovajoli. The spooky score is the perfect thing to play at your next EuroGothic themed party.
The Blu-ray has an audio commentary which was actually recorded for an earlier Retromedia DVD of the film. It features David del Valle with actor Curt Lowens. Lowens enthusiastically discusses his memories of working on the picture, while del Valle keeps wanting to discuss just about everything else. There's also a booklet which reproduces a vintage gallery of stills captioned with lame jokes, in a FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND-style manner. The booklet contains a track listing for the soundtrack CD.
It's nice that Severin decided to give the deluxe treatment to a title that has been the subject of way too many mediocre presentations. The soundtrack CD in particular is a quality bonus. WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY isn't on the Mario Bava level, but's it's a good late-night monster flick.
Thursday, November 21, 2019
It's Pre-Code time again with the 1932 Warner Bros. feature BIG CITY BLUES. The film stars Joan Blondell as a--you guessed it--struggling chorus girl, and it has elements of other Pre-Codes the actress starred in such as UNION DEPOT and CENTRAL PARK.
Bud Reeves (Eric Linden) is a callow young man from Indiana who decides to go to New York City to change his life. Upon arrival in the Big Apple he meets up with his cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett), a fast-talking con man. Gibby proceeds to hit Bud up for various "loans", and he introduces him to a couple of chorus girls (Joan Blondell and Inez Courtney). Bud becomes immediately smitten with Blondell's character, who is named Vida (can you blame him?). Gibby cajoles Bud into holding a party in the young man's hotel room. The gathering is fueled by bootleg hooch, and things start getting out of hand when two of the guests (played by Humphrey Bogart and Lyle Talbot, of all people) begin to fight each other over a young lady. The lady in question winds up getting killed as a result of the brawl, and all the party goers--including Vida--scram from the room, leaving Bud on his own. The confused boy roams the city, trying to figure out what to do. He winds up reunited with Vida, and he's also the fortunate recipient of one of those contrived classic movie climaxes.
A striking (though deceptive) poster for BIG CITY BLUES
Even though Joan Blondell gets first billing in BIG CITY BLUES, Eric Linden as Bud gets the majority of the screen time. Unfortunately the character of Bud is so naive it's hard to have much sympathy for him. He's a perfect candidate for the Looney Toons gag where someone turns into a giant lollipop with a wrapper marked SUCKER. It's seems hard to believe that Vida, one of those sassy dames with a heart of gold, would fall for the poor sap, but it is to Blondell's credit that she makes it work.
Warner Bros. Pre-Codes were always filled with unique supporting players, and BIG CITY BLUES is no exception. Along with the enthusiastic Walter Catlett, there's Inez Courtney, Guy Kibbee, and Ned Sparks. During a nightclub sequence African-American actor Clarence Muse (WHITE ZOMBIE, INVISIBLE GHOST) gets to sing. Despite the fact that the entire plot hinges on the fight between their two characters, Humphrey Bogart (in one of his earliest film roles) and Lyle Talbot do not even get billing in the credits. Bogart has little screen time, but he's already displaying a cynical persona.
BIG CITY BLUES is only about an hour long, and director Mervyn LeRoy (who cranked out dozens of Warner movies) keeps thing hopping. There really isn't much to the movie--boy goes to the big city, gets into trouble, goes back home sadder but supposedly wiser. It's not a great Pre-Code, but it does have that classic Warner Bros. vibe.
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
I have to admit that when I first heard about the 2019 film version of MIDWAY, I had serious doubts. Roland Emmerich as the director? Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz? It turns out that the movie is actually a quite accurate and well done interpretation of the events surrounding one of the greatest naval battles of the 20th Century.
This movie's scope goes far beyond the Battle of Midway, which took place in early June, 1942. The script takes into account Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo, and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese side of events is also dramatized in a fair manner, with emphasis on Admiral Yamamoto.
On the American side a number of real military heroes are ably portrayed by an ensemble cast. If there is a leading character it is fighter pilot Dick Best, played by Ed Skrein. The aforementioned Harrelson winds up being effective as Nimitz, with Dennis Quaid as Admiral Halsey and Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle. The legendary film director John Ford is even characterized (Ford was on Midway Island when the Japanese attacked, and he was wounded while filming what was going on).
The Battle of Midway is not an easy one to recreate on screen, since the outcome of the entire clash was the result of timing. Emmerich, writer Wes Tooke, and editor Adam Wolfe manage to give the audience enough information so they can understand what is going on, while at the same time present it in a exciting manner that is easy to follow. A huge amount of CGI is used in the battle scenes, which in this day and age is to be expected. I think for the most part the CGI here worked, but there were a few times when it did feel like watching a video game.
There are some Hollywood-style moments, but they are very few, and there's nothing that I would say pulls you out of movie's time frame. (By the way, this movie has very little in common with the 1976 MIDWAY.) There is also no mythologizing the characters--they are presented as human beings.
The 2019 MIDWAY is fine WWII film with good intentions. I think it can be appreciated by history buffs and those who are not experts on the conflict.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Recently my great friend Joshua Kennedy mentioned to me that next year will be the 10th anniversary of his first film to receive an official home video release, ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE. I told him that this means the "Gooey Films Universe" is now a decade old (Gooey Films being the chosen name of his production company).
What better way to celebrate the GFU than to pick my personal favorite Gooey Films performances? One of Josh's strengths is that he draws and surrounds himself with many uniquely talented individuals. These people have brightened and enlivened Josh's fantastic visions--and it doesn't matter whether they are "official" actors or not.
I realize that due to Josh's prodigious output, this list will more than likely be outdated in a few months. The GFU, after all, is still only in the infancy stage. All these performances can be found on home video (mostly through Alpha Video) or YouTube, and I highly recommend that readers seek them out.
Haley Zega as Elaine in THE NIGHT OF THE MEDUSA
I consider THE NIGHT OF THE MEDUSA Josh's best overall film (at least up till now), and Zega gives what I think is the best overall GFU performance. You can't help but feel for her as Elaine, an earnest young woman who comes to New York City as a student. Zega's natural likability make the tragedies that befall her character that much more powerful.
Bessie Nellis as Dr. Watson in THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
When Josh told me he was going to have a female Watson in his Sherlock Holmes story, I thought he was being too high concept--but, as usual, he knew exactly what he was doing. Nellis brings dry humor and quirky attitude to what is often a flat character.
Xander Pretorius as Count Dracula in DRACULA A.D. 2015
Josh told me that he discovered Xander after seeing him walking down a hallway at Pace University. Pretorius brought plenty of onscreen charisma and gravitas as the Count.
Tomi Heady as Nancy in THE VESUVIUS XPERIMENT
This performance is a personal favorite of Josh's. As the perplexed wife of the title experiment, Heady brings realism and depth to the type of role that is usually a thankless one in similar low-budget science-fiction features.
Gus Kennedy as Gregorios in THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Gus is Josh's father, but he's also a talented man in his own right. The blind Gregorios is the gentle and wise mentor to the hero Theseus, and Gus steals the film (not easy to do when you're sharing the screen with stop-motion animated monsters). The sequence where Gregorios relates a parable about the love affair between the sun and the moon is the best scene that Josh has ever written, and Gus performs it beautifully.
Veronica Carlson as Anna Banning in HOUSE OF THE GORGON
HOUSE OF THE GORGON is Josh's most star-studded film yet, with such English Gothic icons as Carlson, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, and Christopher Neame. They are all great, but Veronica in particular gets a chance to shine as Mrs. Banning, the mother of the lead female character. Anna Banning could have easily wound up as just a silly old woman, but Carlson gives her a multi-faceted personality, and she contributes several expertly timed line readings.
Joshua Kennedy as Minos in THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Yes, the Orson Welles of Edinburg himself appears on this list (and trust me, he would rather not be on it). All of Josh's various appearances in the GFU are entertaining, but I like his portrayal of the evil King Minos most of all. Why? Because he totally lets it rip in this one, going all out to be as villainous as possible in the classic storybook tradition.
Mention must be made of several other important members of the Gooey Films Stock Company, such as Carmen Vienhage, Traci Thomas, Kat Kennedy, Marco Munoz, and Jaime Trevino.
Sunday, November 10, 2019
I discovered this 2016 documentary on Tubi. It details one man's quixotic attempt to recover a large film set that was built--and supposedly buried--on the central coast of California.
The writer, producer, and director of THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE, Peter Brosnan, had heard a story in the early 1980s about the making of the silent version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The story goes that the imposing set built for the film under director Cecil B. DeMille's orders had been buried underneath the California sand dunes upon which it was erected. Brosnan was so intrigued by the tale that he decided to go to the actual location (near Guadalupe, CA), attempt to dig up the remains of the set, and make a documentary about it.
What seemed like a simple concept turned out to be a frustrating endeavor that went on for thirty years. Every time it seemed that Brosnan had managed to get all the details set so the recovery could begin, one thing or another--mostly local bureaucratic red tape--would shut the process down. Brosnan covers all of this in the film, and one can't help when watching this why the man just didn't throw up his hands and forget about the whole thing--or get a bunch of people with shovels together in the middle of the night and go ahead on his own.
Interspersed with Brosnan's efforts is some production history on both the silent and the sound versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, along with a mini-biography of Cecil B. DeMille. When Brosnan started this project in the 1980s, he was able to interview a number of folks who had worked alongside DeMille, and who had actually been on the silent version's Guadalupe set. Clips from these talks are in the documentary.
THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE is a fascinating story, especially for film buffs. The idea that a vast set, built for a silent movie epic, lies buried and is awaiting full discovery, can't help but fire up one's imagination. But one also develops a sense of annoyance while watching this film, due to the head scratching decisions of a few small-time government officials who seemed to have something personal against Brosnan and his project. The movie also reminds us what real Hollywood spectacle was--and how creative, talented men like Cecil B. DeMille were determined to put the most wondrous things they possibly could on the screen.
Saturday, November 9, 2019
While watching the Blu-ray of THE HUMAN MONSTER, a realization popped in my head. In that movie Bela Lugosi is assisted in his villainous activities by a disfigured hulking blind man played by Wilfred Walter. It occurred to me that throughout his screen career Lugosi had many unique "helpers" who didn't wind up helping very much.
Bela's cinematic personal assistants were not exactly model employees. They usually had various mental and physical debilities, and they were socially inept. Some of them had severe anger management issues, and some of them were not even human (Bela's characters apparently had a fondness for hiring apes).
Good help is often hard to find, but for Lugosi in particular his quest for good help seemed impossible. His collection of bizarre associates constantly ruined Bela's plans, sometimes undermining them on purpose. The "help" was so bad that many times Lugosi wound up doing the dirty work himself. A number of times Bela's assistants succeeded only in assisting him to an unexpected demise. In a few of his films Lugosi had more than one of these types of helpers, which just meant he had twice as much trouble dealing with them.
You'd think that Lugosi's characters would have learned after awhile, but they never did. A cursory examination of Bela's filmography reveals a long list of titles that featured a very dysfunctional labor force:
DRACULA: Dwight Frye
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE: Noble Johnson, Charles Gemora
WHITE ZOMBIE: A whole pack of the living dead
THE BLACK CAT: Harry Cording
THE RAVEN: Boris Karloff
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN: Boris Karloff
DARK EYES OF LONDON: Wilfred Walter
SPOOKS RUN WILD: Angelo Rossitto
GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN: Lon Chaney, Jr.
THE CORPSE VANISHES: Frank Moran, Angelo Rossitto
THE APE MAN: Emil Van Horn
RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE: Matt Willis
VOODOO MAN: Pat McKee, John Carradine, George Zucco
RETURN OF THE APE MAN: Frank Moran
ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY: Darby Jones
SCARED TO DEATH: Angelo Rossitto
ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN: Glenn Strange
BRIDE OF THE MONSTER: Tor Johnson
I'm sure there were some titles I missed, but you get the general idea.
The main villain having a strange unusual assistant is an important element in several classic horror films, but it seemed to fit Bela's acting style perfectly. Lugosi appeared to enjoy bossing his pathetic help around, or threatening them when things weren't going his way (he wasn't adverse to using a whip on them either). When one looks back on Bela's film career, it's hard to remember when he didn't have a maniac, or a dwarf, or a fake gorilla shuffling alongside him.
So what can we learn from this blog post (other than I have way too much time on my hands)??
If you are reviewing someone's resume, and you find out that they worked for Bela Lugosi at one time, you may not want to hire that person.
"He does things for me..."
Thursday, November 7, 2019
In the spring of 1939, Bela Lugosi was in London, England, starring in a film based on Edgar Wallace's novel DARK EYES OF LONDON. The movie would be released in America by Monogram under the title THE HUMAN MONSTER. The result is one of Bela's best showcases. The movie has long been one of the most common public domain titles on home video, and now it gets an official Blu-ray release courtesy of VCI Entertainment.
DARK EYES OF LONDON/THE HUMAN MONSTER is actually more of a crime thriller than a true horror film, with Bela as the sinister mastermind of a murderous insurance scheme. He plays Dr. Orloff, who, while not orchestrating the killing of unfortunate souls and collecting on their life insurance policies, poses as the kindly director of a home for the blind. In this guise as Dr. Dearborn, Bela also pretends to be blind, and he's dubbed by a British actor, supposedly to try and make the audience think it is another performer (it's easy to figure out that it's Lugosi, however).
Lugosi is quite vicious in this story, willing to eliminate anyone to get his way and using a hulking, blind disfigured fellow named Jake (Wilfred Walter) to commit murder. DARK EYES OF LONDON was not a big budget film, but it's lavish compared to most of the low-grade product Lugosi was usually associated with. Bela also gets good support from Hugh Williams as the no-nonsense police inspector investigating Orloff's crimes, and Greta Gynt as the lovely female lead.
Director Walter Summers keeps things cracking during the tight 76 minute running time, and the story is a bit brutal for a movie of this period, with torture and drownings part of the menu. Sadly Bela wouldn't get very many chances to have this much to do in a major feature film ever again.
DARK EYES OF LONDON should probably get more credit than it does, but I believe the film has been hurt by all those poor quality public domain copies over the years. When VCI announced they were going to give the movie a Blu-ray release, classic monster fans on the internet expressed hope that it would be a worthy one. The front of the disc cover claims that the film has been "restored in 2K from the 35mm fine grain".
And how does it look? It's an improvement from the public domain copies....but only a very slight one. The image throughout is soft, and the picture looks more gray than black & white. At times dialogue sounds indistinct. It's certainly watchable...but I wouldn't call this a major restoration. The print used on this disc is the American release version of the film, with the title THE HUMAN MONSTER.
VCI has provided many extras, including liner notes by Patrick McCabe, and a extensive poster and photo gallery. Two audio commentaries are provided. One has Lugosi expert Gary D. Rhodes, who starts out by giving info on the movie, but winds up spending a lot of time lecturing about Hollywood double features and the British horror film ban of the 1930s. The other (which I have not listened to) features David del Valle and Phoef Sutton.
DARK EYES OF LONDON/THE HUMAN MONSTER has long needed a decent home video release. VCI's Blu-ray is better than the public domain versions, and they did put some extras on it....but I have the nagging feeling that somewhere there's a much more pristine print of the film that's just waiting to be put out by another company. Lugosi fans will still want to get this, at least for now, simply because it's one of the actor's prime performances.
Saturday, November 2, 2019
I picked this volume up at a local Meijers at a discount--there's nothing better than getting books cheap.
In high school back in the 1980s I read the first major biography of George Lucas, SKYWALKING, by Dale Pollock. This newer book by Brian Jay Jones is a much more thorough examination of the filmmaker, going up to the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS.
Much of what is in this biography will be familiar to hardcore Star Wars fans, such as the car accident that nearly claimed Lucas' life as he was on the verge of graduating high school, and his battles with studios on films such as THX-1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI. What really comes across in this book is Lucas' fiercely independent nature. He was determined to make the movies he wanted to make, and make them his way, with no interference from anyone else--and he succeeded in that goal.
Lucas' independent streak has affected his personal life as well. He maintains his base of operations in Northern California, away from Hollywood, and as an intensely private man, he has no interest in living a glamorous lifestyle. Lucas considers himself an ordinary person, despite the fact he is one of the richest individuals in the world.
Jones examines Lucas' complex relationships with his friends Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and his first wife Marcia (who won an Oscar as co-editor on STAR WARS).
Obviously the Star Wars saga plays a large part in this book, but some of the more intriguing items covered are the Lucasfilm projects that did not make it big, such as HOWARD THE DUCK, RADIOLAND MURDERS, and RED TAILS. Jones suggests that the critical and financial failure of RED TAILS was the impetus for Lucas to sell Lucasfilm to Disney--an act the film mogul may be regretting.
The author writes in a clear, concise, easy-to-read style. He does not go into too much technical or analytical detail about Lucas' movies (one doesn't have to be a major film geek to enjoy this book). Jones makes very clear Lucas' impact on cinema and the entertainment industry, but he also points out that the filmmaker's individualistic attitude has many times caused him problems.
George Lucas has taken a lot of flack over the last 20 years, especially from people like me. But no one can deny his effect on modern-day cinema, or on modern-day culture. For better or worse, George Lucas has had more impact on society than just about any other human being in the last half-century. This book reiterates that, while defining Lucas as real person instead of a mysterious, remote figure. You can say what you want about him, but let's remember that he hired Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Amicus Productions is best known as being a rival to Hammer Films in the making of various horror and science-fiction films during the 1960s and 1970s. While Hammer became famous for their English Gothic titles, the British-based Amicus (headed by Americans Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky) stuck mainly to fantastic stories in a contemporary setting.
One of Milton Subotsky's favorite films was the 1945 multi-story thriller classic DEAD OF NIGHT. He was so enamored of the movie, it inspired him to make a horror anthology of his own, the 1964 DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS. The result was quite successful, and it set the pattern for six other similar anthologies from Amicus over the next decade.
The following is my ranking of the seven Amicus horror anthology films. The major factor in this list is how the various stories hold up in each individual film. The big problem with any type of anthology film is that there always seems to be one or two stories that are not up to par, or one story winds up being head and shoulders above the others. The Amicus anthologies that, in my opinion, have consistently good stories overall get higher rankings.
Casting plays a small part in this list as well. Since the individual stories in a typical Amicus anthology did not take very long to shoot, the company was able to afford the kind of mainstream actors one wouldn't usually see in these sort of productions. The linking story in each anthology--the one that ties all the stories together--also counts (at times the linking story is more interesting than what is going on in the separate tales).
After Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg parted ways, Subotsky was personally involved in two more horror anthologies: THE UNCANNY and THE MONSTER CLUB. These movies are not on this list, since they are not official Amicus films--but if I did rate them, they'd be at the bottom, because they are both terrible.
Here's my list (along with my favorite story for each film)
1. THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970)
Favorite Story: "Sweets to the Sweet"
This is my favorite overall Amicus movie. All four stories (based on tales from Robert Bloch, who wrote the screenplay) are interesting, and director Peter Duffell succeeds in giving the production characterization and depth. "Sweets to the Sweet" is one of the best stories in the entire Amicus anthology series, and while some dislike the humor in the climatic tale, "The Cloak", I think it's rather amusing. This one also has a great cast, with Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Jon Pertwee, Ingrid Pitt, and Denholm Elliott.
2. TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)
Favorite Story: "Poetic Justice"
Amicus went away from the tales of Robert Bloch in this one and used various stories from the infamous EC comic book. Not all of the five stories are great, but I wouldn't say any of them are terrible. "Blind Alley" is particularly well done, and "Poetic Justice" gives Peter Cushing one of the best roles in his movie career. Director Freddie Francis brings verve and style to the proceedings, and the cast is impressive, with Cushing, Joan Collins, Richard Greene, Patrick Magee....and Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper!
3. DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964)
Favorite Story: "Disembodied Hand"
This one gets extra credit for being the first Amicus anthology. The five stories in this one were all written by Milton Subotsky, and while they are somewhat predictable, director Freddie Francis uses his visual flair to make the most out of them. Peter Cushing is "Dr. Terror", and even though he spends almost his entire time onscreen sitting in a train compartment set, he gives a master class in the art of movie acting. The rest of the cast has plenty of notable names: Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Michael Gough, Bernard Lee, and Francis favorites Katy Wild and Ursula Howells.
Peter Cushing in DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS
4. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974)
Favorite Story: "An Act of Kindness"
The last official Amicus anthology, and the most underrated. This time the stories are based on the work of R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Director Kevin Connor gives each tale plenty of atmosphere, particularly "An Act of Kindness", which becomes a study of English lower-class desperation. This story also features magnificently quirky performances by Donald Pleasence and his daughter Angela, and it has quite the twist ending. Peter Cushing shines again as the "Shop Proprietor" in the linking story. Also featuring David Warner, Diana Dors, Margaret Leighton, and Ian Ogilvy.
5. ASYLUM (1972)
Favorite Story: "Mannikins of Horror"
Roy Ward Baker directs this one, with the stories once again coming from Robert Bloch. The stories are okay, but none of them are particularly great. My favorite, "Mannikins of Horror", is directly related to the linking story, which has a young doctor (Robert Powell) applying for a position at a rather strange institution. The cast is better than the material, with Peter Cushing, Richard Todd, Britt Ekland, Charlotte Rampling, Patrick Magee, and Herbert Lom.
6. TORTURE GARDEN (1967)
Favorite Story: "The Man Who Collected Poe"
Freddie Francis returns to direct the second Amicus anthology. Robert Bloch provides the tales, but the only standout is the climatic one, "The Man Who Collected Poe". That story stars Jack Palance and Peter Cushing. Burgess Meredith steals the film as the linking story's "Dr. Diabolo". Other than Palance, Cushing, Meredith, and Michael Ripper, the rest of the cast--and the other stories--are ho-hum.
7. VAULT OF HORROR (1973)
Favorite Story: "Drawn and Quartered"
More tales from EC Comics, but all five of them are mediocre. The reason I picked "Drawn and Quartered" is for its idea that an artist's paintings can influence actual events. What hurts the movie is that every major character is unsympathetic and uninteresting. The cast has some worthy names, such as Tom Baker, Curt Jurgens, Terry-Thomas, and Dawn Addams....but it doesn't have Peter Cushing. This was the only Amicus anthology he did not appear in, which makes one wonder what role he would have played if he had been in it.
Saturday, October 26, 2019
I am a huge fan of the Three Stooges, but until this week I had never seen the 1941 film TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM. This was one of the very few full-length features the Stooges appeared in during their long time working for Columbia Pictures.
I've never understood why the Stooges didn't get more chances to appear in full-length films during their true glory years from the late 30s and early 40s. Was it because Columbia studio head Harry Cohn feared that the boys might become even more popular in that format, and want more money? In all honesty, the Stooges' madcap slapstick style worked best in the short subject size. When the Stooges did appear in a feature in the 1930s and 1940s, it was as a supporting comedy act to the main story.
And that's the function of the Stooges in TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM. They're not even given proper character names, and as you can see on the poster above, they don't get major billing. They pop in and out of the story at various times, trying to get hired as performers by talent agents played by Rudy Vallee and Richard Lane. The main plot revolves around the talent agents, who are partners, and their differences over a difficult singer (Rosemary Lane). Vallee and his associate (played by Allen Jenkins) discover that Lane's maid (Ann Miller) is a talented singer and dancer herself, and various complications ensue before the big show can go on and everyone winds up happy.
The Stooges don't have a lot of screen time in TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM, but they make the most out of their appearances. The boys are particularly rambunctious here, flinging and throwing themselves about with a manic energy. (Were they going out of their way to make an impression since this was a feature film?). In their first segment the Stooges perform the famous "Maharaja" routine. The group would do this act in a later short, THREE LITTLE PIRATES, but by that point Curly's reactions and timing had slowed due to his worsening health. Here Curly is at the height of his powers, and the only thing that hurts the segment is the constant reaction shots of Rudy Vallee and Allen Jenkins laughing at it. The Stooges get their best showcase at the climax, in which they perform a comic rumba, with Curly dressing like Carmen Miranda.
TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM is essentially a B movie--it's only 76 minutes long, and it's in black & white. A number of novelty acts such as Brenda & Cobina and the Six Hits and a Miss are included, but none of the songs are really all that memorable. It doesn't have the budget to be an outstanding musical, and there's nothing notable in the story or Sidney Salkow's direction. The true star of this film is Ann Miller--with her beauty, talent, and charisma, it's as if she's on a higher level than the rest of the cast. (Unfortunately Miller and the Stooges do not interact with one another.)
If it wasn't for Ann Miller and the Three Stooges, TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM would be forgettable. Stooges fans will at least enjoy seeing the boys let loose from one of their typical short subject stories. (For those who do try to watch this, keep an eye out for Stooges supporting actors Eddie Laughton and Bud Jamison in small roles.) It's too bad they weren't given even more to do in it--and it's too bad they weren't given a chance to star in full-length feature films during this period.
Thursday, October 24, 2019
La-La Land Records has released a CD of original soundtrack music from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN as part of the Universal Pictures Film Music Heritage Collection. It is not the complete original soundtrack--according to the liner notes only about 35 minutes of the score exist--but it is more than enough to showcase the brilliance of composer Franz Waxman.
The CD includes those 35 minutes, along with about 9 minutes of alternate cues. On some of the alternate tracks voices can be heard (I'm sure there's some film music expert out there who can identify those voices). There's 13 total tracks in all, including the entire musical sequence for the "birth" of the Bride. The release is limited to 3000 units.
Franz Waxman's score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN isn't just great classic horror film music, it's one of the best movie scores for any classic Hollywood film period. The score is as eclectic and unique as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is as a film. Waxman did use what might be considered now "scare" cues, but the score also has a playful, darkly sardonic tone to it. There's also a fairy tale aspect to the music as well. Waxman's score was so expressive, Universal reused it in dozens of other features and serials--if you've watched any horror or science-fiction film from the studio that was made in the mid-1930s to the 1940s, chances are you've heard this music frequently.
The sound of the music on this CD is quite good. One has to remember that this music was recorded over eighty years ago, and a lot of technical work went into getting the tracks presentable enough to be used on a CD.
The CD comes with a 20 page booklet that contains an excellent and informative essay by Frank K. DeWald. The author examines how Waxman got the chance to do the score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN--he even details the first meeting between the composer and director James Whale. DeWald also fully analyses each track and how it was used in the film. The booklet is illustrated with several stills from the production.
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, so of course I can't help but call this a magnificent release. Parts of Waxman's score have been rerecorded several times, but there's nothing better than having the original soundtrack music available. La-La Land Records is to be commended for putting this CD together, and hopefully they will be releasing other original music from the classic Universal horror films in the future.
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) isn't just another cheesy sword & sandal movie. It is a phantasmagorical wonder, allowing Mario Bava's creativity and ingenuity to run riot (even if the film's budget didn't).
Kino has given the title a magnificent Region A Blu-ray release, which contains two discs and three different versions of the film:
The U.S. release, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD
The European release, with the German title VAMPIRE GEGEN HERAKLES, with an Italian dialogue track and English subtitles
The U.K. release, HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
There are minor differences between the three versions, but all of them look spectacular, highlighting Mario Bava's eye for color and composition.
Bava had worked on the two films that had started the sword & sandal craze, HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED, as cinematographer, effects artist, and at times director. In HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD Bava got his second official credit as overall director, along with camera and effects work. The result makes other mythological strongman movies look positively tepid.
The mighty Hercules (Reg Park) literally goes to Hades in an attempt to break the spell that has taken hold over his lady love (Leonora Ruffo). The evil power behind this situation is the young woman's uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), who is using dark forces to gain control over the land. Hercules goes through a number of trials and tribulations before he confronts Lico and his undead minions.
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (or whatever title you choose to pick for it) is a fun action adventure that is immeasurably helped by Mario Bava's artistry. Reg Park's Hercules is a bit more pleasant and less forceful in this outing, making him an appealing hero. Christopher Lee is more than a match for him as the villain. Unfortunately Lee is dubbed in all versions of the film, but his iconic presence still makes an impact. Interestingly Lico has a tendency to take the blood of others, but whether he is an "official" vampire depends upon your interpretation of the character.
Kino has been releasing a magnificent series of Mario Bava titles over the last few years, and this one is no exception. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD was put out on DVD by a company called Fantoma in the early 2000s (I have this copy, of course). The DVD version was a decent transfer but this Blu-ray blows it away. The sound quality is also an improvement.
Bava expert Tim Lucas provides yet another of his outstanding commentaries that focus on the director and his work. Lucas does spend a bit of time pointing out the inconsistencies in the story (which honestly I never really thought about), but he doesn't do it in a derogatory fashion. The other main extra is a short program that features an interview with actor George Ardisson (who played Theseus in the movie) and a discussion on the film by Fabio Melelli.
I cannot emphasize enough how fantastic this movie looks on this Blu-ray, and how fantastic it is to have access to three different versions of it. I know a lot of folks look down on the sword & sandal genre, but due to the genius of Mario Bava HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD winds up being a fantastic, entertaining adventure that has classic horror overtones. It needs to be seen and appreciated, especially by those willing to use their imaginations. This Kino Blu-ray will more than likely appear on my list for best home video releases of the year.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
The latest issue of Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS, #43, is chock full of goodies. Two films are exhaustively covered in this issue. The first one is CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, the almost-forgotten sequel to the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
The second is THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, a 1967 low-budget English Gothic from Tigon Films. The fact that this movie gets featured on the cover of the new issue of LSOH may surprise many. (The above cover artwork is by Paul Watts). THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR has a decidedly unsavory reputation. When is it examined in books and magazines, it is usually the subject of derision. The film's star, Peter Cushing, was alleged to have said it may have been his worst movie--and this was during the making of it! (One has to realize that this was before Cushing worked on such truly awful films as TENDER DRACULA, SHATTER, and LAND OF THE MINOTAUR.)
Set sometime in Victorian England, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR tries to follow in the Hammer Horror tradition, but it has neither the style or flair to do so. The plot concerns a Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng), who, for some inexplicable reason, has turned his beautiful daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) into a human/giant moth hybrid. (That is, if she is his real daughter--more on that later.) The creature kills a number of young men for their blood, and the murders gain the attention of local Police Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing). Mallinger and his creature flee the area, but Quennell tracks the duo down, and saves his daughter Meg (Vanessa Howard) from their clutches in the process.
THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is not a good film, but I don't think it deserves to be in the "truly awful" category. It's technically competent, although director Vernon Sewell certainly doesn't go out of his way to make a splash. From my perspective, every scene seems to go on just a bit too long, presumably in order to pad the film's running time. The giant moth costume is mediocre, but the viewer doesn't get to see it all that much. It doesn't even look like what I would imagine a giant moth might be--I think it looks like an alien from a bad third season episode of the original STAR TREK TV show. To many, the disappointment of the giant moth costume is why THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is rated so badly--but I've seen plenty of just as bad or even worse monster movie makeups. No matter how silly a movie monster may look, you still have to use your imagination on the rest of the film--and if you can't do that, you shouldn't be watching these types of films anyway.
What lifts THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR out of the truly awful category, at least in my estimation, is the performance of Peter Cushing. It's very unusual for an English Gothic horror film to have a police official as the lead character. Typically the main police official in an English Gothic is a supporting role, and whenever he does turn up, it's usually a signal for the viewer to go get some snacks or go to the bathroom. The police official role in an English Gothic is a thankless one, simply because the character spends most of the time trying to find out things the audience already knows. This can sometimes be alleviated by casting a quirky character actor, such as Patrick Wymark or Donald Pleasence.
According to John Hamilton's very thorough and excellent article on the making of THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR for LSOH #43, Peter Cushing had the choice to play either Dr. Mallinger or Inspector Quennell--and he chose the Inspector. I have a feeling that the fact that Cushing had recently worked on the sordid CORRUPTION might have had something to do with his pick. In CORRUPTION Cushing had to go through some very brutal histrionics (and massacre almost the entire cast as well). In THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR Cushing not only gets to play the "good guy", he gets to play a man who is conscientious, even-tempered, and intelligent. Inspector Quennell must have been a walk in the park for Cushing compared to some of his more recent roles. This is not to say that Cushing treated it like a walk in the park--his professionalism was too great for that--but Quennell is probably one of the actor's most normal movie characters, behavior-wise. (Notice in this movie how Quennell is dressed decently, but not as high-class as Cushing's Baron Frankenstein or Dr. Van Helsing--I'm sure that idea came from the actor himself.)
Quennell may be a genial fellow, but Cushing is still able to invest him with some personality. The Inspector has a warm relationship with his daughter, and he shows a wry sense of humor when paired with Sergeant Allan (Glynn Edwards). At one point Quennell's police superior tells him, "Watch those expenses"--Cushing's eye roll in response as he walks away is hilarious. Quennell stills knows how to get the job done, just like all of Cushing's monster fighters. When Quennell figures out the entire plot, Cushing goes through the dialogue so smoothly and effortlessly that you absolutely buy into it--another example of how much value the actor brought to low-budget genre films such as this.
Due to Cushing, this is one monster movie where the audience anticipates seeing the police investigator instead of the scientist or monster. Robert Flemyng brings the same nervy tension to Dr. Mallinger as he brought to the lead role in the infamous THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK. The role was originally supposed to be played by Basil Rathbone, but he died before shooting began. (One can't help but wonder what it would have been like to have Peter Cushing and Rathbone acting in the same scene.) Since we are told almost nothing about the Mallinger, or why he is performing these experiments, it's hard to have much of any feeling for him. If you like ambiguity in movie plots, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR has it in spades. There seems to be no reason why Mallinger would want to enable a human to change into a giant moth, or why said human, fully clothed, transforms into a moth with no clothing, and then back into a human fully clothed again. Is Clare his daughter at all?? Is she some sort of totally new creature?? We don't get to find out, but she seems to have more human than moth tendencies. She definitely likes young men as victims, but the script doesn't take full advantage of this. The screenplay was by Hammer veteran Peter Bryan, and it has echoes of both THE GORGON and THE REPTILE. Those films, however, make much more sense. One wishes the story had taken better advantage of Wanda Ventham's sultry nature--what if she tried to seduce her "father", Dr. Mallinger? Or, she tried to seduce Inspector Quennell?? If THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR had been made in the early 1970s, one can easily assume that Clare's human form would have been given a more explicit showcase.
Speaking of exploitation, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR has very little of it. There's not much gore, and the giant moth attacks mostly happen off-screen. Vanessa Howard is sweetly innocent as Quennell's young daughter, but ironically she would go on to play dangerous teases in movies like MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY and WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? If she had been used in a certain way, she might have given THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR some much needed spice. The movie does have an old-fashioned air to it, especially when one compares it to the movie Tigon made next--WITCHFINDER GENERAL.
In his LSOH article John Hamilton does a far better job of deconstructing THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR than I ever could. He also gives the reader all the information one could want on the movie. LSOH #43 also has interviews with FX artist Roger Dicken (who made the giant moth costume), director Vernon Sewell, and plenty of behind-the-scenes photos, along with artwork inspired by the movie.
For those wondering why THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR should be given such extensive coverage in a magazine, and a cover story no less, I say...why not?? You can read about the same famous movies over and over again, but I get much more enjoyment learning new information about obscure titles. THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is no classic, but I'd rather spend nearly 90 minutes watching Peter Cushing as a good guy instead of seeing a generic mainstream title that I'm likely to forget about a couple of days later.