Friday, September 25, 2020

Book Review--RUNGS ON A LADDER: HAMMER FILMS SEEN THROUGH A SOFT GAUZE

 




One of my latest discount book purchases is RUNGS ON A LADDER: HAMMER FILMS SEEN THROUGH A SOFT GAUZE. This is a short memoir on what it was like to work behind the camera for Hammer Films from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. 

The author of this volume is Christopher Neame--but this is NOT the actor Christopher Neame, who appeared in such Hammer movies as DRACULA A.D. 1972 and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. The Christopher Neame that wrote this book was the son of famed British director Ronald Neame. 

This Neame also wanted to work in the film industry, but he wanted to follow a different path than his father. As a young man Neame found himself working as a clapper boy on Hammer's DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS. He would eventually serve on a number of Hammer productions over the next few years, eventually rising to the status of production manager. 

At first Neame was taken aback by Hammer's meager budgets and lack of resources (his father was connected to some of the leading lights of the British film business). He soon learned to appreciate the ingenuity and think-on-your-feet creativity that flourished at Hammer. Neame became fond of working for the company, and he looked forward to whatever Hammer title he became attached to. 

Neame got to work alongside and personally know such famed genre names as Anthony Hinds, Terence Fisher, Peter Cushing, Jimmy Sangster, and Anthony Nelson Keys. He also experienced the beginning of the company's downfall in the early 1970s. Neame would become a successful producer in his own right, but he looks on his days at Hammer with a sense of appreciation for what he learned there. 

Among the highlights are Neame's dealings with Bette Davis during the making of THE ANNIVERSARY, his travails as a second unit director on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, and the various problems that arose during the filming of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB. 

RUNGS ON A LADDER is not a gossipy, tell-all book. Neame writes of his time at Hammer with affection, even those times in which things did not work out properly (which happened rather often). Most of what Neame details will not be major revelations to Hammer fans (Peter Cushing was a joy to work with, Andre Morell could be irritable, Terence Fisher was kindly and affable, etc.). 

The book is written in a very clear, easy-to-read style. One does not have to be a film expert or have a knowledge of cinema technique to enjoy it. There is a small photo section, but most of the pictures will be quite familiar to major Hammer fans (some of the photo captions are in error). There is a very short foreword by Christopher Lee.

If the book has a fault, it is that it's too short. It is only 130 pages, and it is a quick and easy read. One wishes that Neame had given more detail on certain subjects. (The author barely covers his work on FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL.) 

RUNGS ON A LADDER is a decent book, and it will certainly be enjoyed by Hammer fanatics, but it is also a very small and slim volume. I'm glad I got it at a discount, because the book was published by Scarecrow Press, and their original list prices are quite expensive. I wouldn't say that RUNGS ON A LADDER is essential Hammer reading, but it is nice to have if you can get it at a low price. 


Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Dr. Who Films On Blu-ray From Kino

 




The two Dr. (not Doctor) Who films produced by Amicus in the mid-1960s have now been released on Region A Blu-ray by Kino. DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS and DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. are available separately. 

I've already covered these films in a post I wrote back in August 2017 for a British films blogathon, so I won't go into major details about them here. The movies have a bit of a mixed reputation now, since the big-screen version of the Doctor is quite different from the TV version. There's also Peter Cushing's performance as "Dr." Who, which some fans are not too happy with. Personally, I enjoy these films. They're meant to be old-fashioned adventures for the young at heart, and Cushing's funny old man routine doesn't annoy me the way it does a lot of other people. 

The transfers for each film are very sharp, but I must admit that the colors are not as vibrant as I thought they would be (is this due to the films being shot on the Techniscope format?) The sound quality is excellent for movies made in this period. 

The extras on the DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS disc include a 1995 program covering the Who movies called DALEKMANIA. This show features interviews with those who worked on the films, including stars Roberta Tovey and Jill Curzon. There's a short talk with Gareth Owen, who gives background detail on the production, and a featurette on the film's restoration. 

There's also a brand new audio commentary with Kim Newman, Robert Shearman, and Mark Gatiss. All three men are experts and aficionados of British cult cinema, and they are thoroughly enjoying themselves here. This isn't a serious discussion about the nuts and bolts of the film--it's more like three buddies sitting in a living room and geeking out over a admired topic. It's fun to listen to, especially if you are a Doctor Who fan who knows something about the history of the show. (Unfortunately, the fine commentary with Roberta Tovey, Jennie Linden, and Jonathan Sothcott that was on the Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD release of this movie is not included here.) The original trailer to the film is included as well. 

The DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. disc also has the DALEKMANIA program, along with Gareth Owen talking about this particular film as well. There's a very short talk with actor Bernard Cribbins, a restoration overview, and a original trailer. Kim Newman, Robert Shearman, and Mark Gattis return with another enthusiastic audio commentary. 

The Dr. Who movies may not be all that popular among some Cushing fans, but Kino has given each of them very nice presentations on Blu-ray. 



Sunday, September 20, 2020

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD

 






I received as an early birthday present from my good friend Tim Durbin a Kino Blu-ray of the 1957 sci-fi monster movie THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD. Believe it or not, I had never actually seen this film. 

An earthquake strikes the area around the Salton Sea in southern California. The quake unleashes from under the sea a group of gigantic mollusks, who kill some men from a nearby naval base. The base's security officer (Tim Holt) starts an investigation, and helped by a scientist (Hans Conried), plots to stop the mollusks from multiplying. Unfortunately the mollusks infiltrate a local canal system, and things look bleak....but the resourceful officer and his mates manage to head the monsters off, and stop the scientist's attractive secretary (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter from being attacked by one to boot. 

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD was made by the same people behind other 1950s genre films such as THE VAMPIRE and THE RETURN OF DRACULA. All three of those films are formulaic, but they each have little touches to them that make them stand out from the many other monster movies made during the same period. Screenwriter Pat Fielder, who worked on all three films, had a knack for giving supporting characters life, and making them more than just filler for the story. The people in THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD have a workaday reality to them, which makes the overall story more believable. 

Longtime cowboy star Tim Holt plays security officer Lt. Twillinger, a no-nonsense, let's-get-the-job-done fellow. He's good in the typical Kenneth Tobey-John Agar role. Twillinger's driving personality is softened by a romance with Audrey Dalton's character. Dalton isn't a generic damsel in distress here (she would play that role later in William Castle's MR. SARDONICUS). She doesn't even get to wear a nightgown, or get carried off by one of the mollusks. (There is a scene where a young lady takes a dip in the Salton Sea while wearing a white swimsuit very similar to the one Julie Adams wore in THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON--you can probably guess what her fate is.)

The big highlight of this movie is the main creature built for it--a life size practical special effect that is quite unique and effective for the period (even if its moves are a bit jerky at times). The best attribute of this creature is that the actors are able to realistically interact with it. The mollusks (it is suggested that their large size is due to radiation) literally suck the innards out of their victims, leaving them as withered husks. There are some grisly shots of the aftermath of the mollusk attacks. Director Arnold Laven avoids overuse of the creatures, and creates a lot of low-key suspense. 

The story is helped out by lots of location footage shot throughout Southern California, which makes the film appear to have a higher budget than it did. The movie's down-to-earth approach works well for a production such as this. 

The Kino Blu-ray includes an original trailer, which is far more exploitative than the actual film. There's also an audio commentary by Tom Weaver. His talks are always informative and entertaining. At one point Weaver steps aside and allows film music expert David Schecter a chance to discuss Heinz Roemheld's excellent music score. 

I was impressed with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD. The monsters are very well done, the characters are not boring or annoying, and while the story is somewhat predictable, it is realized in an effective fashion. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD can easily get lost in the shuffle among the many other sci-fi/horror features made around the same time, but it holds its own against some of the more famous genre titles. 







Tuesday, September 15, 2020

GAMERA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION On Blu-ray From Arrow Video









There are box sets, and then there are ultra-special box sets. And then.....there is the Gamera Blu-ray box set from Arrow Video. Calling it gigantic doesn't even cover the scope of this collection...it is as mammoth as the Titanic Terrapin himself.

Before I continue with this post, I have to admit that I've barely scratched the surface of this set. I haven't even watched all the movies in it, yet alone comprehensively delved into the extras. Is it wrong to write a review of it when there's so much of the product I haven't gotten to yet?? Well, if I wait until I've gone through every single extra, every alternate edit, and every commentary...it may be a whole other year. So I'm going to go ahead and write a review now.

First of all, this set contains every single Gamera film ever made. This includes the classic Gamera series, which started in the mid-1960s and ended in the early 1970s. There's also GAMERA SUPER MONSTER, the 1980 "comeback" film which was basically a mashup of the Terrific Turtle's greatest battles. The three Gamera films made during the 1990s--which many consider among the best kaiju movies ever made--are here as well, along with the 2006 reboot, GAMERA THE BRAVE.

That's a total of 12 films in all, spread over eight discs. But...alternate versions of a few of those films are provided as well, including the American theatrical version of the first Gamera film, called GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE. Some of the alternate versions found on this box set are the original TV edits put together by AIP.

Each film gets a commentary, and a special introduction by kaiju movie expert August Ragone. Each film also has multiple audio tracks, and subtitles. Each disc is chock full of extras, such as image galleries, trailers, and numerous interviews and documentaries.

For those who bought the Arrow Gamera box set (apparently the American version of it is sold out already), there were even more goodies in it than just Blu-ray discs.




On the left is a 130 page hardcover book containing a reprinting of the 1996 four-issue Gamera comic book series by Dark Horse. On the right is a 80 page book detailing all the films in the set, with an interview of Noriaki Yuasa, the guiding light of the classic Gamera film series, and info on the American versions of the Gamera films (and the numerous American voice dubs for each).




There's also 12 cards, representing each Gamera film, featuring artwork by Matt Frank.




And....there's a fold-out map detailing Gamera's adventures in Japan!! (One side is in English, the other in Japanese)

I've still got a few films in this set to watch, but the ones I have seen all have superlative visual and sound quality. I highly doubt you can find any Gamera film on any other medium which will look as great as they all do here.

This is an amazing set, without doubt one of the greatest home video sets ever produced. The amount of attention and detail put into this is simply stunning. I realize some will be thinking, "All this for a bunch of movies about a giant turtle??" In my opinion Arrow deserves the highest honors for going all out on this set. The Protector of Children has always had to stand in Godzilla's shadow, but the history of the Gamera film series is worthy of attention and analysis, despite the flat-out bizarre nature of most of its entries.

I did not get the Criterion Godzilla box set, because the list of extras was rather sparse, and according to numerous reviews, the visual quality of the films was somewhat lacking. But I did cough up enough hard-earned treasure to get the Arrow Gamera set, mainly because I knew the company wouldn't let buyers down. Trust me, this set wasn't cheap...but it is definitely worth it. (There are plans in the works for Arrow to release a future "regular" edition of the Gamera set.)

Whenever there is a new home video release of any notable science fiction/horror subject, there's sure to be some whining and moaning about it, no matter what the quality of that release may be. I don't see how anyone can complain about the Arrow Gamera set, unless they're ticked off because they didn't get a copy. I'm calling it right now: GAMERA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION is the 2020 Blu-ray release of the year.




Saturday, September 12, 2020

ROUGH RIDERS








My latest cheap home video acquisition ($5 at Walmart) is a DVD of the 1997 2-part cable TV movie ROUGH RIDERS, co-written and directed by John Milius. The movie dramatizes the events surrounding Theodore Roosevelt's military adventures in the Spanish-American War.

The idea for ROUGH RIDERS came from actor Tom Berenger, who felt that a story about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders would be in the same vein as GETTYSBURG, which he had starred in. Berenger wanted fellow GETTYSBURG actor Stephen Lang to play Roosevelt (Lang declined). John Milius, a huge admirer of TR, became attached to the production, and Berenger took on the lead role.

The movie was made for the Turner Network Television cable channel, and Milius was given a far smaller budget and shooting schedule than he was accustomed to. Despite the difficulties, Milius made a very entertaining tale, filled with the director's usual male bravado and discussions of duty and honor.

The movie was originally shown in two parts on TNT (without commercials it runs about three hours). The first half mostly deals with how the Spanish-American War came about, and Theodore Roosevelt's determination to enter the fray somehow. The creation of the Rough Riders unit (the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment) is established, and various minor characters and subplots are introduced.

The second half deals with the Rough Riders arriving in Cuba, and their struggles with a disorganized command and a torrid climate. It all leads to a climax at the San Juan Heights, where Roosevelt and his colorful group charge into history.

ROUGH RIDERS is a treat for history buffs, and those who love classic tales of daring adventure. If you want a "warts and all", cynical approach toward the beginnings of American imperialism, you won't find it here (and considering who the director is, you shouldn't expect that). Milius does mention how the yellow press and business interests fanned the flames of anti-Spanish sentiment, but his main interest is how men react to life-and-death circumstances, and what they will risk their lives for.

Tom Berenger is quite good as Theodore Roosevelt, a role that one would automatically think he was not suited for. Berenger makes use of TR's upper-class accent, and at times he has the American icon act like an overeager nerd. The portrayal of TR here is a bit different than in Milius' THE WIND AND THE LION. Berenger's TR is a bit naive and innocently boisterous. Ironically, the actor who played TR in THE WIND AND THE LION, Brian Keith, plays William McKinley in ROUGH RIDERS. How many actors have portrayed two different American Presidents on film, yet alone a President and the one who succeeded him?

Like GETTYSBURG, ROUGH RIDERS is filled with plenty of notable male character actors, such as Sam Elliott, Gary Busey (who hams it up as Gen. Joe Wheeler), and Geoffrey Lewis. Milius injects many historical figures into the tale, such as William Randolph Hearst (George Hamilton), John Hay (R. Lee Ermey), Frederick Remington, Stephen Crane, and Jack Pershing.

The battles for the San Juan Heights are well-handled, although I'm sure John Milius would have wanted more time and money to invest in them. (Nearly all of ROUGH RIDERS was filmed in Texas--obviously the production couldn't have gone to modern Cuba.) What hurts the battles--and the overall look of the film--is that the movie uses the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is a story that cries out for widescreen.

The only extra on this DVD is an audio commentary with John Milius and executive producer William J. MacDonald. I haven't listened to it yet, and I need to, because the iconoclastic Milius always has something unique to say.

ROUGH RIDERS is a worthy effort, but I must say the story seemed to have been dragged out a bit to fill out a two-night TV slot. Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most fascinating Americans who ever lived, and his actions during the Spanish-American War cover only a very small part of his life. I can't help but feel that ROUGH RIDERS probably wouldn't be made today--or at least the story would be told in a very different manner.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

More Of My Favorite Movie Cast Ensembles




The other day I was going through some of my older blog posts, which shows how exciting my life is. Anyway, a couple years ago I wrote a post called "My Favorite Movie Cast Ensembles", and I noticed there were plenty of movie cast lists I should have included on it, but didn't. That always happens when I do a "list" post, I'm constantly forgetting certain films.

Just like the earlier list, I'm picking large casts where nearly everyone has a chance to shine, or at least contribute something important to the story. I'm not picking movie casts that are nothing more than a collection of cameos. Obviously, my appreciation of the overall film is important as well. (Notice that there are no comic book movies on this post.)



TOMBSTONE
Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang, Dana Delany, Michael Rooker, Charlton Heston

DUNE (1984)
Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Jurgen Prochnow, Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Freddie Jones, Linda Hunt, Dean Stockwell, Sting, Jose Ferrer, Virginia Madsen, Max Von Sydow, Richard Jordan, Everett McGill

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey

KELLY'S HEROES
Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O'Connor, Gavin MacLeod, Stuart Margolin, Jeff Morris, Harry Dean Stanton

MY MAN GODFREY
William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Jean Dixon, Alan Mowbray, Mischa Auer

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD
Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt, Jon Pertwee, Denholm Elliott, Joss Ackland, Nyree Dawn Porter, Chloe Franks, Geoffrey Bayldon

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO
Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, Adrienne Corri, Noel Willman, Klaus Kinski

GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933
Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers

THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973)
Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Frank Finlay, Christopher Lee, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward, Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston

Saturday, September 5, 2020

NUMBER ONE





It's football season....well, it's supposed to be football season, but, I'm not going to get into that. But I will get into a 1969 film about a fictional football player--NUMBER ONE, starring Charlton Heston.

Heston is Ron "Cat" Catlan", quarterback for the NFL's New Orleans Saints. As the story begins, Catlan is 40 years old, and way past his prime. Even though he has led the Saints to a championship, Catlan is in danger of being replaced by a hot young QB prospect. His status isn't helped when he suffers a knee injury during the last game of the exhibition season. In the time up to the beginning of the regular season, Catlan starts to think that maybe he should hang it up. But he's still a prideful man, and a bit unwilling to admit that he's not as good as he once was. He's also unsure about what he should do for the rest of his life, and he has a strained relationship with his wife.

NUMBER ONE was filmed with the assistance of the NFL, and the production attached itself to the real New Orleans Saints football team during its 1968 season. It's surprising that the league did help out with the film, because the story does not make pro football very enticing. "Cat" Catlan isn't a clean cut sports hero. He's a cynical man, who's a bit arrogant, and he cheats on his wife and argues with his coaches. Catlan is used to being "Number One", but now he's unsure of everything around him, and he doesn't know how to deal with his changing situation. There's absolutely no way the NFL would assist in a movie like this today. (In one scene, Catlan argues with his wife, they start to fight, and he pins her down and begins to forcefully kiss her--can you imagine the reactions that would get now, with all the domestic abuse allegations against pro athletes??)

Charlton Heston is excellent as Catlan. This isn't one of Heston's larger-than-life characters--this is a man who used to be larger than life. Most of the men Heston played had a determined stubbornness, and Catlan exudes this in spades. Heston was 45 when he made this film, yet I still thought he was believable enough as an aging pro football player. Some have criticized Heston for his lack of QB skills, but NUMBER ONE is more of a character study than a sports showcase--the major action is off the field, not on. Heston actually had very few in-game football scenes--his character wears the number 17 on his uniform, the same as real-life Saints QB Billy Kilmer. This was so real game footage of Kilmer could be used in the film, to substitute for Heston.




Archie Manning? Drew Brees? No, Charlton Heston


Heston gets nice support from Jessica Walter as Catlan's wife. Instead of being a "little woman at home" type, Walter's character is a successful fashion designer who has her own identity away from her husband. Diana Muldaur is very enticing as the woman Catlan has an affair with, and Bruce Dern plays one of Catlan's best friends, a former Saints wide receiver who got out of the game early and now runs a major car-leasing business. (Dern tries to convince Heston to join him in this endeavor). John Randolph is the Saints head coach, a man who appreciates what Catlan has done for him, yet also knows that his job isn't to be sentimental, it is to win.

NUMBER ONE was directed by Tom Gries, who had already guided Heston through one of the actor's best performances in the Western WILL PENNY. Gries makes use of the famed New Orleans nightlife (legendary musician Al Hirt gets a showy cameo), but his best contribution to the film is showing the day-to-day grind of an NFL football team. (Ed Sabol and NFL Films were responsible for most of the on-field action and in-game experience.) A few times throughout the movie, split-screen techniques and slow-motion sequences are used, but these are not overly relied on.

As a big-time sports fan, I've always had a rather jaundiced view of most sports films. They are usually about as realistic as a video game, and way too many of them go far over the top in an effort to be "inspirational". NUMBER ONE has a low-key, gritty tone to it. One does have to take into account the fact that it was made 50 years ago. The NFL was getting big then, but it was nowhere near at the heights it would eventually reach. If the story of Ron Catlan would be told today, he'd be a lot more well-off financially, so much so he wouldn't have to worry about having to do any real work the rest of his life. And if he did want to get a job, he'd easily find one as a TV sports commentator.

NUMBER ONE is still a great time capsule on what the world's most powerful professional sports league was like decades ago. It also has a very surprising--and very ambiguous--ending....there's no feel-good victorious moment at the end. You don't need to be a football fan, or even a sports fan, to watch NUMBER ONE. Fans of Charlton Heston will appreciate seeing him play an all too human being.

Friday, August 28, 2020

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916) On Blu-ray From Kino





Kino Lorber continues its acclaimed history of releasing silent films on home video with the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

This was the first full-length cinematic adaptation of the Verne novel, produced by Universal Pictures. The film also includes much material from Verne's THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. The eccentric Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar) rescues Professor Arronax, his daughter, and Ned Land after ramming the ship that the group was on. He takes them on a tour featuring the wonders of the sea, and his submarine Nautilus stops near a mysterious island, where a group of Civil War soldiers have been stranded. There's someone else on the island as well--a young girl living a Tarzan-like existence. The girl just so happens to be Nemo's long-lost daughter! All is revealed at the end in a flashback showing that Nemo was once known as Prince Daakar of India.

This first movie version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is historically and technically significant, due to the underwater photography pioneered by the Williamson brothers. The pair went to the ultra-clear waters of the Bahamas to get these for-the-time spectacular shots. The underwater sequences may not seem all that exciting today--they come off now as somewhat stiff--but one must take into consideration that this film was made over 100 years ago. How many of the audience members who viewed this film when it originally came out had seen such sights??

The Williamsons were also responsible for the models of the Nautilus, including a life size version that the actors could actually walk on top of. They also built a giant octopus, which of course attacks a diver during the course of the story. This special effect doesn't stand the test of time, but it is a precursor to all the many big-screen human vs. sea creature battles that would follow.

As for the non-technical aspects of the film....the narrative is very choppy at times, switching back and forth between scenes involving the Nautilus and those dealing with the stranded men on the mysterious island. There's also a rather haphazardly dropped-in flashback concerning Nemo's daughter. After the two main storylines finally converge, we get another flashback, this time dealing with Nemo's past as a prince in his homeland. This sequence feels like it comes from another movie altogether. The credited director is one Stuart Paton, but the underwater sequences and those outside the Nautilus were handled by Ernest Williamson.

This version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA proves that even 100 years ago Hollywood was making major changes to notable source material. Female roles are added to the mix here, and Nemo gets a backstory that "explains" his character. This silent Nemo is very exotically dressed and made up--but we do get to see him play the organ.

Kino touts this Blu-ray as featuring a new 4K restoration of the film by Universal. Some of the scenes show some wear--but others are crystal clear. Once again one must realize that this is a movie that is over 100 years old--the fact that it has gotten a major restoration and a major home video release is an achievement in itself. The running time is 86 minutes, and I wonder if there might be some scenes missing, due to the sometimes confusing nature of the story.

The Blu-ray has a new music score by Orlando Perez Rosso. It's a fine one, in that it doesn't try to overwhelm the film. There's also a new audio commentary by historian Anthony Slide, who gives out reams of detail and info about the making of the movie.

When the 1916 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA was first released, it was considered a major film epic. Having seen it for the first time, I have to say that it is more interesting than entertaining. Those who have read Verne's original works will appreciate it, as will those who are fans of the Disney 20,000 LEAGUES and the Harryhausen MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (there's plenty of comparisons that can be made). Kino is starting a series of releases of Universal silents, and that's great news--they've already got some intriguing Tod Browning films on the way.






Thursday, August 27, 2020

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL On Blu-ray From Shout Factory









Another Region A Hammer Blu-ray from Shout Factory--this time it is FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. Made in 1972 but not released until 1974, this was the last Frankenstein film made by Hammer, the last time Peter Cushing played the role of Baron Frankenstein, and the very last film ever directed by Terence Fisher.

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL was also Hammer's last truly effective Gothic tale. Fittingly, the movie has a bleak and forlorn aspect to it, with a brownish-grey color palette. Somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 19th Century, a young Dr. Helder (Shane Briant) is sent to an asylum due to his experiments with corpses. Helder soon finds that his medical idol, Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is also at the asylum, posing as the facility's doctor. Helder also learns that the Baron is using the asylum's patients to provide parts for his latest creation. Helder assists the Baron in this latest endeavor, but despite giving this misshapen beast (David Prowse) the brain of a professor, the ultimate result is violent death--as it has been throughout Frankenstein's lifetime.

One thing I need to point out right away about this Blu-ray is that it is the 1974 American theatrical release of the movie by Paramount. It is NOT the uncut British version of the film. This has ticked off a lot of people on the internet. When Shout Factory announced they were going to give FATMFH an American release, I was hoping it would be the uncut version. It's not, and that's disappointing....but I'm not going to go crazy over it (heaven knows there's plenty of other major problems going on in the world already). The missing footage is basically a few more extra bits of gore. The thing is, FATMFH is pretty gory even in its edited state. The gore is combined with a dark and somewhat strange sense of humor from John Elder's script.

Peter Cushing's Baron is icily precise as always, but there's a sense here that he's basically come to the end, and he hasn't really accomplished much of anything. As Bruce Lanier Wright aptly puts it in his book NIGHTWALKERS, "Frankenstein seems trapped on a treadmill, an endless loop of pointless suffering and cruelty." Shane Briant, giving another of his typically quirky performances, at first seems very much like the younger Baron we saw in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. But his Helder eventually realizes that there isn't much to admire about Frankenstein (except perhaps his obsessive persistence).

Terence Fisher handles the material in a way that no other director working for Hammer in the early 1970s ever could. Fisher may not have had a "modern" sensibility, but he knew how to get his point across with quiet shot compositions and expert editorial style. He also knew how to let actors carry the scene, and there's plenty that do it here, including old Hammer hands Charles Lloyd Pack, Patrick Troughton, Peter Madden, Sydney Bromley, and a cameo from an almost unrecognizable Bernard Lee. Dave Prowse is restricted by an ugly body suit and mask (which looks even worse on razor-sharp Blu-ray), but he still is able to make the audience identify with and understand the monster's plight. At first viewing one might think that Madeline Smith is stuck with a boring part as the exquisite but mute Angel, an inmate who assists the Baron and Helder. Smith actually makes more of an impression than most of the busty babes Hammer used in their other films made during the same period.

Shout Factory's Blu-ray of FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It is a crisp-looking transfer, but I personally thought it looked rather dark overall.

This Blu-ray doesn't have as much extras as other Shout Factory Hammer releases. There's no Mark Maddox cover artwork, or no alternate aspect ratios. "The Men Who Made Hammer" series continues, with Richard Klemensen from LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS this time discussing Hammer executive Roy Skeggs, who started with the company as an accountant and wound up running it when it was barely surviving. Mr. K's talks are always entertaining and informative, and he adds his own personal recollections.

There's a new audio commentary from the now-expected Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. It's one of their best, as the duo discuss Terence Fisher's style, the state of Hammer when the movie was made, and how the closed-in asylum setting is sort of a purgatory for the film's characters. An older commentary is included with Madeline Smith, David Prowse, and Jonathan Sothcott, and it's a treat to listen to Smith and Prowse relate their memories about the production. There's also a trailer and a very silly radio promo.

I know some will dismiss this disc because it is not the unedited version....but I think this is still a decent Shout Factory release. Now the only Hammer Frankenstein film not on Region A Blu-ray is THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

NO MAN OF HER OWN









The final film in the three-disc Kino Carole Lombard Blu-ray set I am reviewing is NO MAN OF HER OWN, a 1932 Paramount production. This movie is famous for being the only onscreen pairing between Lombard and Clark Gable, long before they became an item in real life.

Gable plays Jerry "Babe" Stewart, a con artist and gambling cheat. Stewart's activities have attracted the attention of the New York City police, so he decides to hide out in the sticks for a while. In a bucolic spot called Glendale, Stewart comes across the very attractive Connie (Carole Lombard), a librarian who is exasperated with small town life. Stewart desires Connie, and on a coin flip, he decides to marry her. He takes her back to New York, but he doesn't intend for the marriage to last--or his gambling lifestyle to change. But Connie is no naive fool, and she finds out how Stewart makes his living. Stewart begins to realize that Connie is indeed worth changing his ways over.

Out of all the films in the Kino Lombard box set, NO MAN OF HER OWN is by far the best. It has a vibrant pace and spunk to it, and Gable and Lombard work very well onscreen together. The role of Jerry Stewart is perfect for Gable--a brash, independent-minded handsome rogue who expects to get his way at all times, but is brought down to earth by a strong woman who is willing to stand up to him. Gable's best attribute as an actor was that he could play men who were basically jerks, yet still be likable and entertaining to an audience. Lombard's small-town librarian isn't meek or weak--she may be attracted to Gable's Stewart but she more than holds her own against him. The actress is very natural and self-assured here, and her sarcastic byplay with Gable carries the story. (The role of Connie was originally supposed to be filled by Miriam Hopkins.)

Gable and Lombard are just about the whole show here, but early 1930s star Dorothy Mackaill gets attention in a important but small role as Stewart's sexy former partner in crime. Pre-Code fans will appreciate the fact that both Mackaill and Lombard appear in lingerie.

NO MAN OF HER OWN is a nice programmer, but the climax wraps things up a bit too tidily. Nevertheless, it remains one of Carole Lombard's best pre-TWENTIETH CENTURY performances, and it makes one wonder what might have resulted if Gable and Lombard had worked together on a film with a more notable director than Wesley Ruggles and with a less generic script.

Kino presents NO MAN OF HER OWN (which has been released on DVD before by Universal) in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and it is the best looking of all the movies in the Carole Lombard set. A brand new audio commentary is included featuring Nick Pinkerton. He spends most of his talk giving out biographical information about the cast & crew, but he does mention that the movie was originally based on a novel by Val Lewton, and he explains how Gable was loaned to Paramount.

Now that I've looked at all three films in the Kino Carole Lombard Blu-ray set, how do I feel about it overall??

First of all, it's great that Kino decided to put this out, and that they have plans to produce more sets revolving around the actress. I hope that future sets focus on Lombard movies that have never been officially released on home video. It's nice that Kino put a couple audio commentaries on this set, and I hope they continue to do that....but I also hope that they choose people who will be a bit more Lombard-centric in their talks.

Out of the three films in this set, I had already owned two of them on DVD. Carole Lombard is my favorite actress of all time, so I probably would have bought this set no matter what. I do recommend it, but I hope that if there are later sets, we are exposed to some rare Lombard performances, and we get more extras involving true Lombard experts.



Saturday, August 15, 2020

MAN OF THE WORLD









Kino's "Carole Lombard Collection I" Blu-ray set includes MAN OF THE WORLD, a 1931 Paramount film that is known for the first onscreen pairing of William Powell and Carole Lombard.

MAN OF THE WORLD concerns one Michael Trevor (Powell), an American living in self-imposed exile in Paris. Trevor makes his living blackmailing rich Americans who like to have fun in the City of Light. Trevor falls in love with young Mary Kendall (Carole Lombard), the niece of his latest victim, and starts to think he can quit his nefarious activities and go back to having a normal life. But Michael's con artist partner Irene (Wynne Gibson) wants him for herself, and she puts doubts in his mind about any rehabilitation.

William Powell is the real highlight of MAN OF THE WORLD, and he elevates it from being a run of the mill melodrama. Powell's Michael is dapper and suave on the outside, but on the inside he can't stand what he has become. Powell ably shows Michael's mixed emotions, and he's helped by Herman Mankiewicz's script, which allows the character to wax philosophical at times. Despite Michael's "profession", the man has a strange code of honor which sets up a very somber climax.

Carole Lombard is a ray of sunshine in this movie, and she's helped out by being provided with a series of flattering outfits to wear. She's constantly gazing at Powell in admiration, which is quite understandable considering the couple would be married soon after this movie was released. There isn't much to the role of Mary Kendall, but Lombard is so appealing here that it's totally believable Powell's Michael would change his ways and put himself at risk for her.

Wynne Gibson plays the "other woman", and she takes what might be looked upon as a bad girl role and makes it sympathetic. It's always welcome to see Guy Kibbee, who plays Mary's uncle. The movie was directed by Richard Wallace, and he smartly keeps the focus on Powell and Lombard.

Kino presents MAN OF THE WORLD in a 1.20:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is very good, if a bit soft at times. (This film was released on a Carole Lombard DVD set from Universal a few years ago.)

New to this release is an audio commentary by Samm Deighan. This is a rambling talk, with Deighan trying to cover a number of subjects (such as the director, writer, Powell, Lombard, Pre-Code, etc.).

MAN OF THE WORLD is more notable for what was going on with William Powell and Carole Lombard behind the cameras. It's a decent tale, without any Pre-Code excesses. It's also features another example of Powell's smooth and unaffected acting style.


Friday, August 14, 2020

FAST AND LOOSE










Kino has recently released a "Carole Lombard Collection I" Blu-ray box set, featuring three of the actress' early films, when she was under contract to Paramount. Two of the movies included, MAN OF THE WORLD and NO MAN OF HER OWN, had already been available on DVD, but the one I am covering today, FAST AND LOOSE, makes its home video debut.

FAST AND LOOSE (1930) is not a starring vehicle for Lombard--Miriam Hopkins, in her big-screen debut, gets first billing. Hopkins plays Marion, the spoiled daughter of a New York millionaire (Frank Morgan). Marion is engaged to a silly-ass English aristocrat, but she doesn't love him. Abandoning her engagement party, she meets up with a handsome fellow on the beach (Charles Starrett). The fellow turns out to be her family's newly hired mechanic, and while he's interested in Marion, he's annoyed by her flighty ways. Meanwhile, Marion's brother, a lazy lush named Bertie (Henry Wadsworth), is courting a chorus girl named Alice (Carole Lombard). Marion and Bertie's snobbish mother and uncle are appalled by their romantic relationships, but her father realizes that regular folks like Henry and Alice are just what his children really need.

The dialogue to FAST AND LOOSE is credited to the legendary Preston Sturges, and the director of the film was Fred Newmeyer, who worked with Harold Lloyd. If this makes you think the movie is a laugh-out loud riot, it isn't (at least from my standpoint). FAST AND LOOSE is almost like a filmed stage play, and it's very clunky at times. This is one of those early sound films that lacks a visual and a rhythmic spark. Miriam Hopkins winds up being more annoying than appealing, and Henry Wadsworth as Bertie spends most of his time onscreen almost falling down drunk. One wishes that at the end of the film Lombard and Charles Starrett wound up together. The one performer in the film that I thought came off the most natural was Ilka Chase (who I know nothing about) as Alice's spitfire of a friend and fellow chorus girl.

Carole Lombard doesn't have all that much to do as Alice, but she does (as expected) look beautiful doing it. Despite the title of the film, I thought that Lombard was a bit restrained here, without her usual spontaneity--but one does have to take into account this was one of her earliest sound features, and she was still developing her freewheeling comedic talents.

Kino presents FAST AND LOOSE in a unusual 1.20:1 aspect ratio. The picture quality is excellent considering the rareness of this title. The sound quality is very uneven, but this is probably due to the recording equipment of the time. In a few scenes the sound level goes up and down when actors move to a different part of the set, and there are times when the dialogue is very hard to hear overall. (At least this disc features subtitles.) The only extras are a few trailers for other Lombard films. FAST AND LOOSE is the only movie in the "Carole Lombard Collection I" that does not have an audio commentary.

FAST AND LOOSE is a very strange choice to be included in this Lombard set. Yes, the movie does feature her, but she's not the main star, and there's nothing particularly notable about the film overall (other than it was Miriam Hopkins' big-screen debut). What's really enticing about this set is the "I" on the box title--hopefully that means more rare early Paramount features starring Carole Lombard. There's still plenty of them that have never been released on home video.





Monday, August 10, 2020

WHITE WOMAN





The title for this one doesn't lie. There is a white woman, in the luxurious form of Carole Lombard. WHITE WOMAN is a 1933 potboiler produced by Paramount and set in Malaya, although the shooting locations are strictly indoor studio jungles.

In Larry Swindell's excellent biography of Lombard, SCREWBALL, the author describes WHITE WOMAN as "trash". Carole plays Judith Denning, a cafe singer who has bounced around from one South Seas port to another, due to her bad reputation. (Judith's husband committed suicide years ago, and somehow the blame for the act fell on her.) Judith is about to be deported again when she catches the eye of Horace Prin (Charles Laughton), a bizarre-looking (and acting) owner of a large rubber plantation in Malaya. Judith agrees to marry Prin, and he takes her to their new home--a large houseboat. Judith soon realizes her situation hasn't improved very much, but she soon takes a fancy to Von Eltz (Kent Taylor), the overseer of the plantation. The quixotic Prin sends Von Eltz away to the far reaches of his spread to break up the relationship, but the new overseer (Charles Bickford) takes a shine to Judith as well. Prin winds up offending the natives who work for him, and they attack, causing Von Eltz to take Judith away.

After reading a description of the plot of WHITE WOMAN, one can imagine all sorts of salacious events that could be presented in the story, especially since this is a Pre-Code film. The reality is that WHITE WOMAN isn't all that lurid (there is a human head thrown through a window, though). Lombard and Kent Taylor spend a lot of time gazing at each other, but they don't set off a lot of sparks. For all the danger that Lombard is supposedly in, due to her being a beautiful blonde white woman in a steamy remote setting surrounded by desperate men, she has plenty of time to lounge around with perfect hair and makeup.



Kent Taylor, Carole Lombard, and Charles Laughton in WHITE WOMAN



Charles Laughton is the true star of this film, and he provides enough ham to serve fifty different Easter Sunday dinners. His Horace Prin is described as the "King of the River", a feared man who has the natives under his thrall and his white employees in constant dread. Yet Laughton for the most part plays Prin as a buffoon, with a sloppy Cockney accent, Chester A. Arthur-style whiskers, and various W.C. Fields-like under-the-breath sarcastic mutterings. It's hard to believe this guy could command the office water cooler. Laughton and Lombard make one of the most unlikeliest screen couples ever--and ironically, they would again a few years later in a movie called THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (which I have not yet seen).

Kent Taylor is another of those many 1930s leading men with a mustache who don't make much of an impression (for whatever reason Lombard would be stuck co-starring with a lot of these guys in her movie career). Charles Bickford doesn't show up until late in the tale, but he brings plenty of needed vitality as the cocky tough-talking new overseer (he should have been the one to play Horace Prin).

WHITE WOMAN was directed by Stuart Walker, who is best remembered now for helming Universal's WEREWOLF OF LONDON. Walker lets Laughton's scene-chewing and Lombard's beauty dominate the proceedings. The movie is only 68 minutes long, but it still drags in spots. It feels as if it's set up to be in the same manner as the work Josef von Sternberg was doing for Paramount at the same time. WHITE WOMAN, however, doesn't have von Sternberg's visual and atmospheric intensity.

As for Carole Lombard, WHITE WOMAN was another of the many Paramount features she appeared in that didn't give her a chance to display her natural spontaneity. She looks gorgeous, but she also appears dissatisfied with the whole affair. No doubt she was well aware that Laughton was running away with the show, and her part was not fully developed.





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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

RINGO FROM NEBRASKA (AKA SAVAGE GRINGO)









RINGO FROM NEBRASKA (also known as SAVAGE GRINGO, NEBRASKA JIM, RINGO DEL NEBRASKA, and a few other titles) is a 1966 Italian-Spanish Western. The movie's direction is credited to Antonio Roman, but according to Troy Howarth's book THE HAUNTED WORLD OF MARIO BAVA, Roman was removed from the production after only about one week of filming. Producer Fulvio Lucisano then hired Mario Bava to finish the film. Bava did not receive any official credit on it whatsoever, but many other sources state that he did work on the picture.

So RINGO FROM NEBRASKA  (or whatever you choose to call it) can be considered, for the most part, a Mario Bava film. Bava had already made a Euro Western before this--the mediocre THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO--and he would make one later--the truly bizarre ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK. RINGO FROM NEBRASKA, while certainly not a great film, is the best entry in Bava's Western output.

The movie stars American actor and Eurocult veteran Ken Clark as a mysterious stranger named Nebraska. (Clark also played the lead role in THE ROAD TO FORT ALAMO.) Nebraska happens to arrive at a remote ranch owned by a man named Marty Hillmann. Marty hires Nebraska to help him defend his spread against Bill Carter, a vicious fellow who happens to be Hillmann's archenemy. Complicating matters is Marty's wife Kay, a young, buxom redhead who is desired by Carter. Kay is also tired of being with the middle-aged Hillmann, and she makes a play for Nebraska. The stranger, however, feels a sense of loyalty to Marty....so he rejects Kay's advances while doing his utmost to stop Carter from killing Hillmann.

RINGO FROM NEBRASKA is not one of the wild & wooly entries in Spaghetti Western cinema. The story is very basic, and the characters are one dimensional. Nebraska is quite proficient in the use of firearms, but he's nowhere near as amoral as most Euro Western lone gunmen. One expects Nebraska to give some background on himself or his situation, but that scene never happens (at least it didn't in the version of the movie I watched). Ken Clark definitely looks heroic, and he handles himself well in the action sequences, but he has a stoic, almost bland presence.

Yvonne Bastien as Kay is able to get the viewer's attention, mainly due to the fact that she has the only major female role, and also because her cleavage is one of the film's biggest highlights. Piero Lulli is very effective as the villainous Bill Carter. A few of the supporting players I recognized from their work in other spaghetti westerns, such as those from Sergio Leone.

RINGO FROM NEBRASKA is enlivened by a major plot twist near the end, which reveals that the relationship between Marty, Kay, and Carter is far more complicated than Nebraska was led to believe. This is followed by another twist which actually caught me by surprise. These twists enable the movie to be a bit more than an average Western tale.

One has to wonder, though, how different the film would have been if Mario Bava had been involved in the script from the beginning. (I have a feeling that Bava would have spiced up the character of Nebraska somewhat.) RINGO FROM NEBRASKA is competently made, and it isn't a slog to get through...but it lacks that certain creative spark that Mario Bava brought to almost all of the films he worked on. There's nothing here that automatically marks it as a Bava entry, except for a few striking shot compositions. The action scenes (although there isn't a lot of them) are well done, particularly two drag-out knock down brawls between Nebraska and Bill Carter. Nino Oliviero contributes an effective music score, which I would describe as "Morricone Lite".

I viewed this movie on YouTube (the actual title on-screen was RINGO DEL NEBRASKA). The version I saw was dubbed in English, and it had a running time of 83 minutes (IMDB lists multiple running times for this film). The print was in widescreen, and it was in decent shape.

The most notable thing about RINGO FROM NEBRASKA is Mario Bava's involvement in it. The movie lacks the over-the-top flourishes that one associates with the most notable Euro Westerns, and it has very little in common with Bava's most renowned films. (If you didn't know that Bava had worked on it, you wouldn't have come to that conclusion on your own just by watching it.) In the end this film is more of a curiosity than an entertaining story.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

WICHITA





Director Jacques Tourneur is best known for making film noirish black & white thrillers such as CAT PEOPLE and NIGHT OF THE DEMON, but he also worked on a number of colorful Westerns. Tourneur directed genre star Joel McCrea multiple times, and one of their collaborations was WICHITA, a 1955 production in Cinemascope concerning Wyatt Earp.

Earp is played by Joel McCrea, although it's more accurate to say that McCrea is really playing another variation on his typical heroic Westerner role. This Wyatt Earp is one of the most virtuous and clean-cut versions of the man in movie history.

The film starts out with Earp arriving at Wichita, Kansas, hoping to start his own business with money he's saved up from hunting buffalo. The town of Wichita is trying to establish itself as a railhead for cattle drives, and an attitude of "anything goes" is in the air. Wyatt just wants to stay out of trouble and keep to himself, but he winds up stopping a bank robbery. The leading citizens of Wichita attempt to convince Earp to become town marshal, but he wants nothing to do with the job. When a wild group of drovers kill a five-year old boy while shooting up the town, Earp changes his mind. The new marshal immediately bans all firearms within the city limits, and makes it known that he will not tolerate any violence, even if it means hurting the local economy. The same leading citizens who wanted Earp to take the job now want him out, but he refuses to back down.

WICHITA is a okay Western, but it's quite predictable. As soon as Wyatt starts talking about how he doesn't like violence, you know exactly what is going to happen. McCrea uses his quiet determination and his solid as a rock persona to lay down the law in Wichita. There's more talk here than action. The subplot about what ordinary citizens are willing to accept to obtain order and security is a good one, but it isn't developed enough. The incident of a hero taking up a badge due to the killing of a young boy is very much like what happens to Errol Flynn in DODGE CITY.

WICHITA is enlivened by the supporting cast. Vera Miles plays Earp's love interest, a prim and proper young lady who is the daughter of one of the town's leading businessmen. (The real Wyatt Earp's personal relationships were far more complicated.) Mae Clarke plays Miles' mother, and there's a number of other notable character actors, such as Lloyd Bridges, Wallace Ford, Edgar Buchanan, Robert Wilkie, and Jack Elam.




Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp in WICHITA


Keith Larsen plays a very young (and hot-headed) Bat Masterson, who in this film Wyatt Earp becomes a mentor to. (Ironically Joel McCrea would play Masterson a few years later in THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY.) Peter Graves plays Morgan Earp, and the unexpected way that Wyatt's brothers are introduced is one of the highlights of the story.

For those interested in Jacques Tourneur, there's nothing in the film that I would say is particularly significant. WICHITA is very much a standard Western, specifically designed for McCrea. In my opinion Tourneur's best Western is the dark and moody CANYON PASSAGE, a film I highly recommend.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

KISS OF EVIL--The American TV Version Of THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE





In my post on the new Shout Factory Blu-ray of THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, I mentioned that the disc includes a version of the film prepared by Universal for American network television. This TV version not only has added scenes (to lengthen the film to fit into a two-hour time slot with commercials), it also has several changes to the original material. The TV version is so different, I thought the best way to discuss it would be to write a separate post on it altogether.

The biggest change is the title--KISS OF EVIL. Taking the word "vampire" out of the title seems silly, since that's what the movie is about--but just about every instance of blood shown onscreen was removed as well. For those who have seen the picture, you might be asking, "How did they take out any appearance of blood and still have the story make sense??"

The story is still coherent, but the highlights of the original movie are watered down. The fantastic opening sequence of THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, where the brooding Prof. Zimmer thrusts a shovel into the closed coffin of his stricken daughter, is curtailed. The scene where Gerald (Edward de Souza) is to be "initiated" by the sultry Tania (Isobel Black) winds up being strange instead of thrilling, due to the removal of Gerald using his own blood to fashion a cross on his chest. The original climax, in which Dr. Ravna's coven of vampires is destroyed by a flurry of bats, is drastically changed. There are a number of stock shots added of swarms of actual bats, but we are not shown the pests attacking the undead group. We hear screams, and we are shown the original last shot of bodies laying about the castle hall....but we don't get to see the attack whatsoever, ruining the climax.

One would think that Universal was trying to convince viewers that the movie wasn't about vampires at all....but the TV version leaves in all the dialogue about vampirism, and there's still some quick shots of characters with fangs. Whatever Universal was trying to do with it, the result is a strange concoction.

The added scenes, which are about 15 minutes total, concern a middle-aged couple from the nearby village and their attractive young daughter. The couple is played by character actors Virginia Gregg and Carl Esmond, and the daughter is played by Sheliah Wells (who I though greatly resembled Hammer starlet Suzan Farmer).

The middle-aged couple are at odds, since the woman has taken on the job of making the ceremonial robes for Ravna and his followers! (Apparently this makes her the equivalent of long-time Hammer wardrobe mistress Rosemary Burrows). The added scenes explain various plot points, and they also reveal the fate of Prof. Zimmer's daughter much earlier than the original film does. These scenes hurt the mystery and the flow of the film, since they in no way have the same excellent production design and cinematography of the theatrical version of the story.

What's even worse is that the TV version ends with one of these added scenes, in which the couple discuss how things are normal again with the vampire cult gone, and the daughter is reunited with her boyfriend. This added ending even features a few shots from the original theatrical version of Hammer's THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN!

This TV presentation of KISS OF EVIL that is featured on the Shout Factory Blu-ray of THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is in full-frame, and it runs about 93 minutes. It appears to have been recorded from an old Sci-Fi Channel showing. The quality is okay, but it is much better-looking than the TV version of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN that Shout Factory included on their Blu-ray of that film.

Shout Factory has provided an audio commentary for KISS OF EVIL. featuring cult movie experts Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth. It's an entertaining and lively conversation, and the duo were obviously enjoying themselves during it. They cover details about both KISS OF EVIL and THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, and they go into the somewhat obscure history of special American network TV versions of certain theatrical films. Their discussion of this reminded me of something I had totally forgotten--it was quite common in the 1970s and early 1980s for the American TV networks to take unused and edited footage from theatrical films, add them to the running time, and show the result as a two-night "special event". Most of these alternate TV versions of movies no longer exist, or are not on official home video.

That's why it's important that Shout Factory has decided to present the American TV versions of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE on home video. (They are also going to include the TV version of Hammer's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on their upcoming Blu-ray of that title.) These are certainly not the best versions of the films, nor are they the way to properly experience these titles.

But they do exist, and they are a part of the history of Hammer Films. Watching these TV versions, in full-frame and in degraded quality, is how most folks experienced Hammer in the first place. I personally find the idea of different and alternate cuts of movies fascinating--they might not be any good, but it gives one plenty to chew on when it comes to story and content analysis. For me, the more info and material on a movie, the better.

So let's give thanks to everyone involved at Shout Factory for providing these TV versions of Hammer features.




Saturday, July 25, 2020

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE On Blu-ray From Shout Factory









The latest Hammer film to be released by Shout Factory on Region A Blu-ray is THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. This 1963 color Gothic is one of Hammer's best productions.

THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was not directed by Terence Fisher, and it does not star either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. Nevertheless, it is one of Hammer's best productions, with plenty of atmosphere and intriguing characters. Production designer Bernard Robinson always did stellar work for Hammer, but he really outdoes himself here, and Alan Hume's striking cinematography takes full advantage of the exquisitely dressed sets. James Bernard provides one of his best scores, which features a memorable piano concerto.

The underrated Don Sharp directed THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, and he turns out an effective tale, while still being able to make some subtle twists to the Hammer formula. Producer Anthony Hinds (under his pseudonym John Elder) provides one of his best scripts.

The movie stars Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel as a young English couple traveling through Central Europe on their honeymoon in the early 1900s. Their motorcar breaks down, and they encounter a vampire cult led by the sinister Dr. Ravna (Noel Willman). Thankfully they are helped by the mysterious Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans).

Usually the young romantic leads in any English Gothic film wind up being dull, but De Souza and Daniel come off as intelligent and likable. Noel Willman's Ravna is one of Hammer's best villains, and Clifford Evans steals the film as the rough-and-ready Zimmer. Special mention must be made of Isobel Black, who gives a very spirited performance as Tania, a young woman who quite enjoys being one of the undead.

Shout Factory goes all out on this release, with three different versions of the film and three audio commentaries.

The featured version of the movie has a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it looks stunning (just check out the magnificently vivid red dress Jennifer Daniel wears during the ball sequence). The commentary on this version has Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel, moderated by Peter Irving. The track was recorded a few years ago (Daniel has since passed away). The two stars of the film sound like they are having a great time, reacting to the movie at various points and telling plenty of stories about what it was like working on it and at Hammer in general.

There's also a version of the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which looks gorgeous as well. The audio commentary attached to this presents Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr, and they go into detail on how the script for THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was developed.

The third version of the film included on this disc is a cut prepared for American TV by Universal in the late 1960s. This has new sequences shot for the film, and plenty of changes to the original material. It also has a very entertaining commentary by Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth. There's so much that needs to be said about this TV version that I'm going to write a separate blog post on it, like I did for the TV version of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN that was also released on a Shout Factory Blu-ray. (If you don't want to watch the entire TV version--and I honestly think you should, even if only for curiosity's sake--the added scenes can be accessed separately.)

The extras include two new entries in "The Men Who Made Hammer" series, one on James Bernard and the other on Bernard Robinson. It's fitting that both men are talked about on this disc, since they did some of their best work for THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. Richard Klemensen from LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine provides info and stories on both programs, and they will be greatly enjoyed by Hammer fanatics. There's also a few trailers and TV spots.

Those who ordered this Blu-ray direct from Shout Factory received another glorious 18 x 24 poster showcasing the artwork of Mark Maddox (see picture above). The Blu-ray itself has a slipcase with this artwork, and the disc cover has the original American poster artwork for the film on the reverse side.

This is another simply outstanding Shout Factory Hammer Blu-ray release--in fact I think it is one of the best-looking transfers in the entire series. The multiple versions, the multiple commentaries, the two "The Men Who Made Hammer" entries, another great poster....I know re-buying the same movies over and over can be a pain, but Shout Factory is giving Hammer fans very legitimate reasons to go to the well again.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS On Blu-ray From Kino









There have been many filmed adaptations of the historical events concerning the notorious murderers Burke & Hare, but the best by far is the 1959 British film THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. The movie was produced by Robert Baker and Monty Berman (who also did the cinematography), and co-written and directed by John Gilling. It was re-released several times in the 1960s under different titles such as THE FIENDISH GHOULS and MANIA. Kino's new  Region A Blu-ray of the film features two different versions of it.

In 1828 Edinburgh, the brilliant and acerbic Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) is the head of a medical academy, where corpses to be used for study are in short supply. Knox has no qualms in dealing with grave robbers, and soon he starts to be supplied by a couple of seedy characters named Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence). The duo skip digging up graves altogether by murdering lower class folk from the squalid part of the town. Burke & Hare's greed and capacity for violence gets the best of them, and Knox becomes implicated in their crimes. The haughty doctor is forced to reexamine his attitudes about his profession and humanity in general.

THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS is a black & white film, with no supernatural elements whatsoever. Yet it is far more disturbing than the color shockers made by Hammer during the same period. The story isn't set in a Gothic fairyland, and it deals with people that actually existed and incidents that actually happened. The hardscrabble, poverty-stricken dark alcoves of Old Edinburgh are expertly realized by art director John Elphick and Monty Berman's stark photography. The entire production has a grim and gruesome tone to it. The various killings are not stylized, or staged to seem exciting--the taking of life here is presented as messy, vulgar, and pathetic.

Peter Cushing is, as expected, excellent as Dr. Knox. It's simple to put Knox in the same category with Cushing's Baron Frankenstein--but the men are quite different. Cushing's Knox is a stuffy, almost prissy fellow, who seems more interested in talking about surgery than doing it. One can't imagine this Knox wiping blood on his frock coat, the way Cushing's Baron would. (Cushing's Baron would also rather go out and get his own corpses than deal with people like Burke & Hare). Unlike the Baron, Knox is still able to be affected by the consequences of what has happened around him.

Despite the greatness of Cushing, I must state that he still winds up getting upstaged by Donald Pleasence as William Hare. Pleasence's sardonic cruelty, low-class cleverness, and unnerving smirk make his Hare become one of the most memorable characterizations in English Gothic cinema. He's ably supported by George Rose as the brutal simpleton Burke. Burke & Hare in this film are basically the equivalent of modern American rednecks.

There's also standout performances by two actors playing eventual victims of Burke & Hare--Billie Whitelaw as a feisty prostitute and Melvyn Hayes as Daft Jamie.

John Gilling would later work for Hammer Films in the mid-1960s, but THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS is his best overall horror film. There's an underlying sense of depravity in this picture, along with a very dark and understated tinge of humor.

Kino's Blu-ray of THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS presents a 95 minute "Continental" version of the film, which has a few nude scenes. The overall quality of this version is inconsistent at times, with parts of the film looking softer and brighter than others. It is in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The disc also includes an American version of the film, released later in the 1960s, with the title THE FIENDISH GHOULS. This cut is only 74 minutes long, with no nudity. This version does Peter Cushing no favors...much of his role has been edited out, and it doesn't even include Dr. Knox's change of attitude at the climax. The 74 minute cut does I think have better overall visual quality than the longer version.

Other than some trailers, the main extra on the Blu-ray is a new audio commentary (on the longer cut) by Tim Lucas. He starts out by admitting that the movie actually made him sick when he first saw it on TV as a youngster. Lucas believes the film fits into the category of film noir, and he compares it with Ken Russell's THE DEVILS.

There's plenty of public domain versions of THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS out there (usually carrying one of the film's alternate titles). The Kino Blu-ray is the one to get, due to the longer, more complete cut and the Lucas commentary. This is the one adaptation of the Burke & Hare story that truly matches the duo's horrific actions, and it contains exemplary work from Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence.



Saturday, July 18, 2020

BLOOD & FLESH: THE REEL LIFE & GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON









Al Adamson (1929-1995) was the son of a B movie cowboy who appeared on screen under the name of Denver Dixon. The young Adamson tried a number of ways to break into the movie business, but his career really got going when he teamed up with producer Sam Sherman. Under the Independent-International Pictures banner, the duo made a series of off-the-wall, disjointed exploitation films that have achieved cult status.

Adamson and Sherman would do just about anything to get their product out (except spend more money on the pictures). They used multiple titles and cut multiple versions of the same films. The movies they came up with were perfect for the late 1960s-early 1970s drive-in/grindhouse era.

The drive-in market began to fall off in the late 1970s, and Adamson drifted away from film making. His name resurfaced again in 1995, due to the circumstances of his bizarre murder, a crime that was made much of in the tabloid press.

BLOOD & FLESH: THE REEL LIFE & GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON is a fine documentary that covers all of this and more. It was produced by Severin Films and directed by David Gregory. I viewed it through the Tubi streaming channel.

I must admit that I haven't seen a lot of Al Adamson's cinematic work. What I have viewed didn't impress me, even from a camp aspect. I feel that it's more entertaining to discuss Adamson's movies than to watch them.

Nevertheless, this documentary does prove that the man certainly made his mark. (Severin has recently released a mammoth box set of Adamson movies on Blu-ray). The various titles Adamson used, such as BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR, are well-known to film geeks. The director worked with the likes of John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., and Russ Tamblyn. Adamson also gave renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond some of his earliest job opportunities.

Tamblyn and Zsigmond talk about their experiences with Adamson in this documentary, along with several others who worked regularly with the director. Sam Sherman gets plenty of screen time as well, along with cult film experts Michael Weldon and Fred Olen Ray.

Despite the wild and wooly nature of his film career, Adamson himself comes off as a regular guy, unpretentious and unassuming. (The only major complaint about him throughout the documentary was that he was cheap.) The film discusses Adamson's loving relationship with his wife Regina Carrol, who acted in most of his films. Carrol died of cancer in the early 1990s. (If she had lived, Adamson might have avoided his own tragic fate.) There is mention made of Adamson's involvement with various UFO cults near the end of his life.

There's plenty of stuff here for the bad movie buffs to chuckle over, including a look at Adamson's most famous (and infamous) film, DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. There's also plenty of clips from Adamson's cinematic universe--and in all honesty that's probably the best way to appreciate his work. Among the subjects who pop up in BLOOD & FLESH are Charles Manson and Colonel Sanders!!

BLOOD & FLESH is very enjoyable. It doesn't totally degrade Adamson's low-budget weirdness, and it doesn't make him out to be some sort of underappreciated genius either. The tone of the film takes a very sharp turn at the end when it comes to Adamson's murder--it starts to feel like one of those true-crime programs one sees on the A & E channel.

BLOOD & FLESH isn't a quickie promo reel for the Al Adamson flicks released by Severin. It's a thorough, 100 minute documentary that more than adequately covers its subject in an entertaining and interesting manner. Despite the tawdry nature of the films Adamson made, and the tragic circumstances of the man's death, there's almost an old-fashioned quaintness about BLOOD & FLESH. Al Adamson didn't seem interested in the trappings of big-time Hollywood fame and wealth, and he wasn't trying to make any sort of statement with his work. He just wanted to make movies that entertained or caught the attention of the audience, and that he most certainly did.




Sunday, July 12, 2020

THE LAST VALLEY On Blu-ray From Kino










THE LAST VALLEY is a somewhat obscure historical drama released in 1971. The movie was produced, written, and directed by James Clavell. It has been recently released on home video by Kino Studio Classics.

The story is set during the Thirty Years' War, a time of religious persecution and cruelty. A motley group of mercenaries, led by a no-nonsense German Captain (Michael Caine) comes upon a remote village nestled in a picturesque valley in Central Europe. A man of learning, who has been trying to stay one step ahead of the wars for years (Omar Sharif) convinces the Captain that he and his men should take shelter in the village and protect it, instead of despoiling it. The Captain comes to an uneasy understanding with the locals, including the town leader (Nigel Davenport). But the mercenaries and the villagers can't help but follow their own agendas, while the Captain realizes he can't truly escape the war.

THE LAST VALLEY is another film that I don't ever remember being shown on TV. It wasn't successful at the box office, and it's easy to see why. The Thirty Years' War was not exactly a popular subject among English-speaking audiences (and it still isn't). The movie, despite being rated PG, does not shy away from the brutality and militant religious attitudes of the period. (The opening scene shows a small settlement attacked by Caine's men, and the people who live there are either killed or raped, simply because they just happen to be in the way.) There are no "good' or "bad" characters--each person deals with the situation of the Captain's group staying in the valley in their own way, putting survival over morality.

Michael Caine is a revelation here. This isn't the Caine of ALFIE or GET CARTER. Here he speaks with a clipped German accent, avoiding his usual dialogue patterns. His Captain doesn't have to shout or scream to get his point across. The man is a professional killer, but he's also rather cunning, and he's able to take advantage of whatever situation he may come across. The Captain is not a likable person, but he's not supposed to be. Caine makes it believable that this man could survive such a violent time and still be able to control a bunch of bloodthirsty soldiers. I think this is one of the best performances Michael Caine ever gave.

Most of the supporting cast is made up of European actors. Omar Sharif does very well in his role--he plays a man who is constantly straddling the fence at all times, but avoids making the character seem weak or fawning. Nigel Davenport is excellent as the village leader, a man who in his own way is just as cunning and brutal as the Captain.

The outdoor locations for THE LAST VALLEY were filmed in Austria, and they are spectacular. James Clavell and cinematographers Norman Warwick & John Wilcox take great advantage of the terrain. The action sequences are few, but they all have a Kurosawa-type of grittiness to them. (The Captain and his men do participate in a major battle near the end, but it's quite short--it could have been the basis of an entire movie itself.)

The transfer of THE LAST VALLEY that Kino has used for this Blu-ray is not good. There's visible damage spots on it, the frame jerks a bit at times, and the day-for-night scenes are very murky. I had never seen THE LAST VALLEY before, so I certainly can't compare it to any other version that might be out there. But it is disappointing that this Blu-ray does not look better, especially with all the visual splendor presented in the film. The sound quality, on the other hand, is very bold, and it does justice to John Barry's magnificent music score. (I was so impressed with Barry's work on the film that I went on Ebay and ordered the movie's soundtrack album.)

The only extra for this Blu-ray, other than some trailers for other Kino product, is a brand-new audio commentary with Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. The trio analyze various aspects of the production, but they have a tendency to wander away from it when they discuss the careers of the people who worked on it.

THE LAST VALLEY is not a rousing epic filled with exciting battles. It's a thinking man's historical tale, dealing with a time and a society that most will not be familiar with. There's no sense of closure, or of right triumphing over wrong. What one does get from this movie is how each person's religious and political beliefs are only as deep as their immediate situation (organized Christian religion does not come off well here). This film is worthy viewing, especially when one considers what's going on today, with "cancel culture" and "Agree with me 100% or else" politics. THE LAST VALLEY also contains one of Michael Caine's best (and unusual) performances.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Ennio Morricone (1928-2020)









How does one even attempt to define the majestic genius of Ennio Morricone??

Even declaring him the greatest and most prolific film composer of all time barely scratches the surface. Morricone's impact on popular culture--heck, modern society--is immeasurable.

Morricone didn't just produce scores for Euro Westerns. He worked in every genre, on every type of story, and with all sorts of directors. Whatever genre he worked on, he redefined it, musically.

His work has also been quoted, imitated, and-for lack of a better phrase--ripped off thousands and thousands of times. But nothing sounds like the music of Ennio Morricone.

The very first movie soundtrack I ever bought--on cassette tape, back in the 1980s--was THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. I own hundreds of movie soundtracks now, many of them also by Morricone. The man's music opened up whole new worlds for me. One of the main reasons I am a film geek is due to Ennio Morricone.

I'm sure plenty of others have stories like mine. And there will be plenty of others in the future who will be influenced by the man. Morricone's music belongs to no time, or country, or genre--it is eternal. His work and his career are absolutely unique.

I could write paragraph after paragraph, using up all the superlatives there are in discussing Morricone.....but instead of doing that, why don't we all listen to some of his music today??

Saturday, July 4, 2020

THE PLAINSMAN (1936)













Pandemics, social unrest, a screwed-up baseball season....none of that is going to stop me from buying cheap DVDs or Blu-rays whenever I can. My latest discount purchase is THE PLAINSMAN, a 1936 Western saga from the legendary Cecil B. DeMille.

THE PLAINSMAN deals with three legends of the Old West: Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper), Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur), and Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison). It begins after the end of the Civil War, with Hickok somewhat miffed that his friend Cody has gotten married and decided to settle down. Wild Bill is also annoyed by the attentions of Calamity Jane, a sparkplug of a gal who'll do anything to get his attention. The famous trio deal with Native Americans, the U.S. Army, and gunrunners.

Like most films directed by C.B. DeMille, THE PLAINSMAN is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The first scene in the film shows Abraham Lincoln having a meeting with his cabinet. The President is going on about how important it will be to tame the West, when Mrs. Lincoln walks in and mentions that they're late for the theater. The main villain of the film (played by Charles Bickford), an ornery fellow who sells guns to the Indians, is so obviously a bad guy that one wonders why anyone would have any dealings with him whatsoever. THE PLAINSMAN is big, bold, and brash, and it has very little to do with the actual lives of its main characters....but it is entertaining.

Gary Cooper's Wild Bill has somewhat of a rebellious streak in him, while Jean Arthur steals the film as the sassy, whip-cracking Calamity Jane. It's very doubtful that the real Calamity looked anywhere near as pleasant as Arthur does--despite the fact that she's supposed to be a 1860s tomboy, Jean still has perfect hair and a flawless complexion. Arthur is still fun to watch, and apparently this was one of the very few projects she actually enjoyed working on. Cooper and Arthur had just made MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, and their reunion here is most welcome, although their characters have a relationship much different than that in the Frank Capra classic. (Cooper would go on to work with DeMille a number of times.)

It's surprising that DeMille didn't try to get a third star to play Buffalo Bill Cody. James Ellison is all right, but such a figure needs an actor with a more outstanding personality. Maybe DeMille didn't want Cooper to be overshadowed, but I doubt that would have happened.

As is typical in a DeMille production, there's plenty of interesting actors in the supporting cast, such as Francis Ford (John Ford's brother), Gabby Hayes, and a very young Anthony Quinn, who plays a Cheyenne who gives a very spirited description of the Battle of Little Big Horn. George Custer appears in the story, along with other historical characters as Edwin Stanton and Schuyler Colfax.

THE PLAINSMAN is a very fanciful rendition of the American West, but it is meant to please audiences--which is something Cecil B. DeMille always tried to do.