Tuesday, December 1, 2020

THE TELL-TALE HEART (1960)

 





In his essential book ENGLISH GOTHIC, Jonathan Rigby declares, "....THE TELL-TALE HEART is something of a lost classic, albeit a minor one, of British horror." Having seen the film for the first time over the weekend, I wouldn't exactly call it a classic. This Edgar Allan Poe adaptation from 1960 was made in England, produced by the Danziger brothers, and directed by Ernest Morris. In black & white, and the recipient of a very low budget, THE TELL-TALE HEART makes the Hammer horrors and the Roger Corman Poe films made during the same period look like multi-million dollar productions. 

Like most other movies based on the works of Poe, the script makes vast changes to the author's original tale. This version is set in the 19th Century, apparently in Paris--I say apparently because even though all the street signs one sees on screen are in French, all of the characters act English, and they all have English names. 

Laurence Payne plays Edgar Marsh, a morose fellow who has almost no social skills. Edgar lives a lonely existence in an old domicile, until one day he notices a beautiful woman entering the boarding house across the street. The woman is named Betty (Adrienne Corri), and Edgar makes several embarrassing attempts to gain her affection. The worst mistake Edgar makes is introducing Betty to his only friend, the dashing Carl (Dermot Walsh). As soon as Carl and Betty look at one another, one knows that Edgar will be shunted aside fairly quickly. The pathetic guy still thinks that Betty is his, until he finds out the truth the hard way. Edgar gets Carl to come over to his house, and he kills him by savagely beating him with a poker. Edgar buries his former friend underneath the floor in one of his rooms, and tries to carry on as if nothing had happened...but the murderer keeps hearing the beating of a human heart, and Betty decides to do some investigating on her own. 

Poe's original story "The Tell-Tale Heart" was very short, and it has very little material for a full-length film. This version fills things out by adding a love triangle (which, ironically, many of the Roger Corman Poe movies feature). But even that aspect is pretty thin for a 78 minute film. It's fairly obvious that Carl and Betty are going to get together, and one just waits for Edgar to exact his revenge. The murder sequence is quite grisly for the period, as is the scene where Edgar, driven crazy by the "beating" of Carl's heart, actually cuts the organ out and buries it outside. There's also a nice effect when the floorboards, and the lawn outside, appear to be "breathing" in rhythm to the supposedly beating heart. There's a lot to put up with, though, before and after these sequences. 

The big problem is the character of Edgar. He's such a forlorn loser that one wonders how he's been able to function in society (he looks like he's about 40). The idea that a man about town like Carl would be his close friend seems hard to believe. It's also hard to believe that such a milquetoast as Edgar would be able to commit such a violent murder. These problems might not have been as notable if this had been a short subject instead of a full-length feature. 

Genre veteran Adrienne Corri easily makes the biggest impression here, even though this is one of the most normal characters she ever played onscreen! Corri makes the audience's sympathy go to Betty--she tries to be kind to Edgar and not hurt him, but the dope just doesn't get it. At one point Betty sneaks into Edgar's house to do some snooping to find out what really happened to Edgar--and of course he comes back home, and Betty has to hide and sneak away from him, This sequence, and the various times that Edgar spies upon Betty as she's in her upper-floor apartment call to mind REAR WINDOW--even though this movie is nowhere near Hitchcock's class. 

THE TELL-TALE HEART has a double-twist ending that calls to mind numerous episodes of classic TV anthology shows. It might have been better if this movie were cut down to about 30 minutes and shown on THE TWILIGHT ZONE or ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. It doesn't have the flair or style of the Hammer or AIP Gothics. 


Friday, November 27, 2020

CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE

 






Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was a multifaceted and multi-talented individual. In his long life he was an illustrator, architect, matte painter, and a renowned graphic futurist. His drawings and conceptions of the solar system still inspire those working in the field of space exploration today. Bonestell is the subject of a 2018 documentary, CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE, which was written, produced, and directed by Douglass M. Stewart, Jr. I viewed it on the Tubi streaming channel. 

Bonestell had an amazing career. He was a talented artist at a young age, but his family wanted him to become an architect. Bonestell's designs would have influence on many famous structures in San Francisco and New York City, including the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Bonestell would move to Hollywood in the late 1930s and work as a matte painter at several movie studios (one of the films he did paintings for was CITIZEN KANE). After World War II, Bonestell began to do artwork depicting outer space, and he worked with George Pal on many science fiction films such as WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. 

The documentary covers all of this, in a straightforward manner, with many renowned individuals shown on camera talking about how Bonestell has influenced them. Special effects artists such as Douglas Turnbull, Craig Barron, Ben Burtt, and Richard Edlund are interviewed, along with several scientists and other graphic artists. 

The main highlight in the documentary are the brilliant paintings Bonestell created depicting the environs of outer space. They have a 21st Century feel to them--it's hard to believe that most of them were painted some 70 years ago. Bonestell's epic vistas of various planets and moons are stunning. 

Bonestell's work is covered in great detail here, but the documentary only gives us a glimpse of the man himself. A few audio snippets and archival interviews with the man are shown, but very little of his personal side is revealed. The film does mention that Bonestell personally experienced the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and suggests that may have had an impact on his more apocalyptic artwork. Bonestell's collaborations with Wernher von Bruan are also mentioned. (The documentary does point out that Bonestell, ironically, was not a science fiction fan--he was more interested in science fact.) 

I had known who Chesley Bonestell was, and I had seen some examples of his artwork....but until watching this documentary I had no idea of the full scope and impact of his entire career in the arts. CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE is a fascinating documentary, especially for those who are interested in and inspired by true creativity. 



Thursday, November 26, 2020

DOWNHILL (1927)

 



The number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that I have not seen are in the single digits--and that total went down with my recent viewing of DOWNHILL, made in 1927. 

DOWNHILL was only Hitchcock's fourth film as a director, and it was his next feature after the highly successful THE LODGER. The star of THE LODGER, Ivor Novello, co-wrote the story for DOWNHILL, and he also plays the lead role. 

Roddy Berwick (Novello) is the big man on campus at his English boarding school. He comes from a wealthy family, he's athletic and handsome, and he's popular. His life comes crashing down after he's accused of an indiscretion by a working-class girl, and he is expelled from school. Roddy didn't do anything, but he keeps quiet for the sake of his best friend. Roddy's father kicks him out of the house, and with no means of support, he winds up being an extra in a stage review. Roddy is bequeathed 30,000 pounds by his godmother, and he marries the play's leading lady (Isabel Jeans). The conniving woman cheats on Roddy and spends all his money, and soon he's in France, making a living as a gigolo. The youth ends up in Marseilles, begging for a ship passage back home, where he is reunited with his family. 

DOWNHILL is nowhere near as exciting or inventive as THE LODGER. When Hitchcock would talk about DOWNHILL in later interviews, he would be somewhat dismissive about it. The movie has a very languid pace to it, and there isn't all that much to the plot--young rich guy gets into trouble, has to fend for himself, and has some bad experiences. Ivor Novello was quite good as the mysterious title character in THE LODGER, but his Roddy Berwick isn't captivating, and he's not the brightest bulb either. What hurts DOWNHILL the most is that Roddy's "degradation" doesn't seem all that degrading, especially for viewers that have actually had to do real work for a living. DOWNHILL does contain a theme that would crop up several times in Hitchcock's work--a well-to-do, attractive person being put through unusual and uncomfortable circumstances. 

Hitchcock works in plenty of visual flourishes when he can, but at times it feels as if he's straining to inject some life into a slight story line. Roddy is constantly shown going "down"--on a staircase, an escalator, and a elevator. There's a number of point of view shots, and the film gets more expressionistic near the climax, as Roddy starts to have visions. The director of photography on this was Claude McDonnell, and there are a number of atmospheric shot compositions. 

One major Hitchcockian moment is when we see a medium close-up of Roddy in a tuxedo. The camera moves back a bit to reveal that Roddy is actually a waiter, attending to a high-class couple....but then the point of view goes out even further, to show that all this is happening on a theater stage. 

DOWNHILL will certainly be of interest to Hitchcock fans, but it is not the type of material that was best suited for him. The excellent print of the film that I saw courtesy of TCM ran almost two hours, and the entire tale could have easily been told in half that time. 


Ivor Novello in DOWNHILL



Monday, November 23, 2020

Book Review: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW

 







In 2017, Del Rey published STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW, a book that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the film by featuring 40 stories that looked at the story from a different perspective. Now THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK gets the same treatment. 40 stories by 40 writers, in roughly the same order as the timeline of the movie. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW showcases various background characters and material. There's a chapter taken from the viewpoint of the wampa that attacked Luke in the beginning of the film, and also one featuring the "space slug" (the official Star Wars Universe name for the creature is exogorth). There are stories about General Veers and Admiral Ozzel, and we find out what Yoda was doing and thinking when Luke arrived on Dagobah. 

Remember the guy who is trying to escape from Cloud City while carrying what looks like an ice cream maker?? He gets a chapter too (and it explains what that device he's holding was). The best story, in my opinion, is about how Obi-Wan's spirit feels while Luke trains with Yoda. 

It appears to me that it was much harder to come up with 40 stories on EMPIRE than it was for STAR WARS. That may be due to the fact that the movie has a very focused plot--there's only three main locations, and most of the stories deal with two of them, Hoth and Bespin. 

Nevertheless, this is for the most part a fun and intriguing read. This is a perfect holiday gift for a hardcore Star Wars fan, and no matter how many times you may have seen EMPIRE, reading this book will make you want to see it again. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

PROXIMA

 





A NEW movie?? Well, relatively new....it's PROXIMA, a French film from 2019, starring Eva Green, and co-written and directed by Alice Winocour. 

Green plays Sarah Loreau, who has been picked as a replacement to go on a space flight to the International Space Station. This is something that Sarah has wanted her entire life, but she has mixed feelings about how it will effect her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant). Sarah struggles to keep up with the intense training while dealing with being separated from Stella. She also has to prove herself to the self-assured American astronaut on the mission (Matt Dillon). 

PROXIMA may be about astronauts, but this isn't a whiz-bang science-fiction tale with flashy technology. This is a quiet, intimate drama, about a woman's attempt to juggle a high-pressure complicated career with her family issues. Green gives a fine, strong performance as Sarah. The character is not a kick-ass super woman, she's a real person with real emotions. Green has great chemistry with the young actress playing her daughter--they really could pass as a parent and her child (which isn't always the case in movie families). What helps the film is that Zelie Boulant doesn't act like a "movie kid"--her reactions and interactions feel true to life. (Would this have held true if Stella was played by an American child?)

What's refreshing is that there isn't a romance tacked on to the story. Green's character has an ex-husband that takes care of their daughter while she's away, but he's not a major part of the film. Green is very much on her own here--at the beginning, she and Matt Dillon's character get off on the wrong foot, but they learn how to work together and respect each other....and no, there isn't any physical sparks between them. 

PROXIMA has a very fact based tone to it (some of it was filmed at the European Astronaut Center near Cologne, Germany). At least, it seems fact based to me. The even-mannered, realistic attitude may come off as boring to some. I wouldn't say the movie had me riveted, but it did hold my attention, mainly due to Eva Green in the lead role. 

(By the way....while looking for a image to attach to this blog, I saw one poster that had Matt Dillon's face as big as Eva Green's....this is an absolute misnomer, Green is the real star here, Dillon just has a supporting role.) 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

HAND OF DEATH

 





HAND OF DEATH is a 1962 sci-fi/horror film, released by 20th Century Fox. The movie stars John Agar, but instead of his usual act of fighting monsters, here Agar becomes one. 

Agar plays Alex Marsh, a scientist who is experimenting with nerve gases. Marsh is a hardworking, determined fellow, and he winds up exposing himself to a chemical agent. Marsh discovers that he literally has a hand of death--if he touches anyone, or if anyone touches him, that person instantly dies. Marsh tries to get the head of the research facility he works for to find an antidote, but his situation gets even worse--his entire body becomes bloated and swollen, and his skin becomes blackened and cracked. Needless to say, this causes his girlfriend (Paula Raymond) great concern. Marsh wanders about for a while, with the police on his trail, before things come to a head at his girlfriend's beachfront home. 

What's striking about HAND OF DEATH is that it was released by a major studio, and it was shot in Cinemascope--yet it is only an hour long, and looks and feels very much like the low-budget science fiction stories made in the mid-1950s. There's more talk than action, and even when John Agar finally gets into full monster mode, he doesn't really do all that much, except stumble about. (Apparently it really was Agar underneath the monster makeup.) 

That makeup is the most memorable thing about the film (see picture below). Why Agar turns into such a creature--or why he has a touch of death to begin with--isn't really explained. In my research on this movie, many have commented on the makeup's resemblance to the Marvel comic book character The Thing, which was debuted around the time this film was being made. It's ironic that the makeup looks like The Thing, since Agar's transformation due to a series of strange gases is very much like the origin story of a number of comic book heroes and villains. 



John Agar in HAND OF DEATH

The makeup is effective from a visual standpoint, but it doesn't allow Agar to express himself in any way, thus lessening any sympathy the viewer might have for him. Director Gene Nelson also has all the scenes with Agar in Thing mode take place in bright daylight, which makes the creature at times look silly when he shuffles about in everyday surroundings. A scene where Agar in his full makeup gets into the back of a cab and starts grunting at the driver comes off as unintentionally funny. 

One wonders if the writer and producer of HAND OF DEATH, Eugene Ling, was influenced by THE FLY, which had come out a few years earlier. The relationship between workaholic Agar and his worried girlfriend Paula Raymond (who had appeared in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) is reminiscent of that between David Hedison and Patricia Owens in THE FLY. Agar also tries to write a note asking for help while in full makeup, much like Hedison did in the earlier film. There's also a hint of the Karloff-Lugosi THE INVISIBLE RAY here, with the death touch, but a mention about Agar's jealousy over his girlfriend and a fellow scientist doesn't lead anywhere. 

Among the supporting cast of HAND OF DEATH are Joe Besser, who acts as if he's still in a Three Stooges short, and the future Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, who takes part in the old "innocent child inadvertently meets up with a monster" scene. Agar's lab assistant is played by John Alonzo, who would go on to become a distinguished cinematographer. Speaking of cinematography, the man who did it for HAND OF DEATH was Floyd Crosby, who makes the drab black and white settings look much better than they should have. 

HAND OF DEATH has a intriguing-looking monster, but the script doesn't give him much to do, and the hour long story doesn't have enough time to develop any of the main characters. John Agar does his best (the scenes where he is angry over his plight reminded me of his performance in THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS), but he's hindered by a monster makeup that doesn't give him a chance to show any emotion. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

WHITE TIGER (1923)

 





Earlier this month I covered DRIFTING, the main feature on a Kino Blu-ray that contains two silent films directed by Tod Browning. Today I'll look at the other movie on the disc, WHITE TIGER, which was made before DRIFTING but released after. 

WHITE TIGER is very much a precursor to Browning's THE UNHOLY THREE. A trio of con artists, who have issues with one another, use a strange and unique gimmick to gain access to the houses of the wealthy in order to rob them. The trio then winds up at a remote cabin in the woods. The three crooks in WHITE TIGER are played by Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith, and Wallace Beery. 

Raymond Griffith plays Roy, who runs a sideshow act involving a mechanical chess player. (It is Roy that gets inside the device and actually controls it.) Wallace Beery's shifty con man comes up with the idea of using the chess player as a way to steal from the rich, and Roy joins up with him and his "protegee", Sylvia (Priscilla Dean). Sylvia and Roy seem to have a special connection to one another--as well they should, since they are actually brother and sister (it was Beery's character that caused the death of their father and their separation from each other as young children). After a robbery, the three hole up in a remote cabin, where they are joined by a mysterious fellow (Matt Moore) who has an interest in Sylvia. All the characters' real identities are finally revealed, as is their fates. 

Tod Browning himself came up with the scenario for WHITE TIGER, and it contains many elements the director would use throughout the rest of his career. Raymond Griffith is now known as a silent movie comedian, but here he's the leading man, and with his mustache and striped shirt, he greatly resembles other Browning characters played by John Gilbert in THE SHOW and Norman Kerry in THE UNKNOWN. Priscilla Dean doesn't get much of a chance to shine here--she plays yet another female criminal who is rethinking her life. Wallace Beery and Matt Moore play the same type of characters they portrayed in DRIFTING. 

The most intriguing aspect of WHITE TIGER is the mechanical chess player, but it is only dealt with in the first half of the story. The second half consists of all the main characters stuck in the cabin, eyeing each other suspiciously. The movie bogs down quite a bit here, and the climax is somewhat disappointing. 

The version of WHITE TIGER featured on this Blu-ray is from a 16mm print, and it is not in the best of condition--but one is able to now at least see it on official home video, and that's the important thing. WHITE TIGER has been given a new audio commentary, by silent film historian Bret Wood. It is an excellent one, with Wood analyzing Browning's penchant for using the same situations and elements over and over again. The music score provided here for WHITE TIGER is by Andrew Earle Simpson. 

Another extra on this disc is the only surviving reel of the 1919 Browning film THE EXQUISITE THIEF. It stars Priscilla Dean as--you guessed it--a criminal, and the small amount of footage shows her robbing a swanky dinner party at gunpoint, and a night-time car chase. What is shown is enticing enough for one to wish the entire movie had survived. 

I've stated several times in the past on this blog how exemplary Kino's silent movie video releases are. This one is no exception, with two rare films from a famous cult director. Kino has plans to continue to work with Universal in releasing more of that studio's silent movie catalog. 



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA On Blu-ray From Shout Factory

 





I have often been asked, "What is your favorite all-time Hammer film??" The answer might surprise you--it is by far THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, the 1960 vampire adventure released in the United States by Universal. 

I realize that Christopher Lee is not in this film--heck, Dracula isn't even in it period. With all due respect to Mr. Lee, that doesn't matter here. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is the ultimate Hammer film, a colorful Gothic fairy tale directed to the hilt by Terence Fisher. The sumptuous lighting by Jack Asher, the magnificent production design by Bernard Robinson, the costumes, the sets....all combine to make this one of the greatest examples of English fantastic cinema. And to top it all off, Peter Cushing gives my personal favorite performance in any of his movies as the great and courageous fighter of evil, Dr. Van Helsing. Throw in a lovely damsel in distress in the form of Yvonne Monlaur (who I met in 2014), and striking supporting performances by Martita Hunt, Freda Jackson, and David Peel as the undead Baron Meinster, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA represents Hammer at the height of its power. There are a few plot inconsistencies, but once one is swept up in the the dark storybook aspects of the film, these are not that important. 

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA has long deserved a Region A Blu-ray special edition release. The movie was released as part of a Universal Hammer Blu-ray set a few years ago, but in a very strange 2.00:1 widescreen aspect ratio that didn't due the shot compositions any favors. Now Shout Factory has come along and set things right. 

First of all, Shout Factory presents THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in two different aspect ratios--a 1.85:1 version and a 1.66:1 version. Both transfers look stunning, showcasing the color photography and the wardrobes worn by the cast. The sound quality seems beefed up as well, even though it is in DTS-HD Mono. 

Shout Factory also provides some very worthy extras. The most important ones are two more episodes of "The Men Who Made Hammer" series. There's one on acclaimed cinematographer Jack Asher, whose virtues are extolled by Hammer historian and expert Richard Klemensen. Klemensen points out that even though Asher's painstaking efforts were considered too "slow" for a low-budget company like Hammer, none of the films that the man worked on for them ever went wildly over budget or over schedule. Klemensen also points out the various difficulties Asher faced while working at Bray Studios. 

The other "The Men Who Made Hammer" program covers Terence Fisher, and, as befitting its subject, is nearly an hour in length. Richard Klemensen was not only a huge fan of Fisher's work, he got to meet him and know him personally. Klemensen's talk on the director is the best and most insightful analysis of the man and his work I've ever experienced. 

A half-hour program, which was made a few years ago, about the making of the movie is included, and it features interviews with some of the cast & crew. There's a new discussion on Malcolm Williamson's score for the film by David Huckvale. (Williamson's music for BRIDES has never gotten a lot of appreciation, mostly due to the fact that he wasn't James Bernard.) Also on this disc is "The Haunting of Oakley Court", in which the Buckingham Palace of British horror films is visited and examined (ironically this extra is on the Severin Blu-ray of Amicus' AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!). 

There's a brand-new audio commentary with--you guessed it--Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. They go through the various earlier incarnations of the script, and examine the overall fairy tale aspect of the film. They both agree with me that THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of the finest films Hammer ever produced. An extensive still gallery is here, along with a vintage radio spot for the film and a couple trailers. 

Last but not least, those (like me) who ordered this Blu-ray direct from Shout Factory received a 18 x 24 poster of the disc sleeve artwork by Mark Maddox. I love all the Maddox posters for the Shout Factory Hammer Blu-ray series, but this one is my favorite of them all--it's as if Jack Asher himself did the lighting for it (see below). The disc cover is reversible, and the other side has original American advertising artwork for the film (see above). 

When I started getting into Hammer films in the 1980s, and reading whatever was available at the time about the company, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA was barely covered. It was usually dismissed as "a Dracula film without Dracula", and the absence of Christopher Lee was mentioned more than anything actually pertaining about the film. The perception of the film has changed greatly since then--it is now generally looked upon as not only one of Hammer's best, but one of the best English Gothic films, period. This Blu-ray from Shout Factory gives THE BRIDES OF DRACULA the showcase it deserves. 




Saturday, November 7, 2020

YOUTH RUNS WILD

 




One of the few non-horror films Val Lewton produced during his tenure at RKO in the 1940s is a drama about juvenile delinquency called YOUTH RUNS WILD (1944). Like Lewton's terror tales, this movie has a very exploitative title....but the result is very non-exploitative. 

According to my internet research, Lewton meant for this to be a serious examination of the problems that American youth was facing on the home front during WWII. RKO wasn't happy with how the original cut turned out, and the release version of the film was apparently much different than what Lewton and director Mark Robson wanted. 

Despite the title of this movie, there's not a lot of youth running wild. The story concerns a young wife and her soldier husband, who is back home recovering from a war wound. (The couple is played by Lewton veterans Jean Brooks and Kent Smith.) The wife is worried about her teenage brother Frankie (Glenn Vernon), who has been missing school and getting into trouble. Frankie is in a romantic relationship with his next-door neighbor Sarah (Tessa Brind, later known as Vanessa Brown). Sarah has problems of her own--her parents work nights at the local defense plant, and they either ignore her or treat her like a servant. Frankie is put under the charge of his brother-in-law, and the soldier does his best to guide the youth and to find something for the other wayward kids in the neighborhood to do. Sarah is taken under the wing of a young woman by the name of Toddy (Bonita Granville), a tough-talking gal with a heart of gold, who "knows her way around". A tragedy ensues at the climax which causes Frankie and Sarah to grow closer together. 

One wonders what Val Lewton's original version of YOUTH RUNS WILD might have been, because the movie that was released feels watered down and disorganized. Frankie and Sarah are not bad kids (they're squeaky clean compared to the rebel teenagers in 1950s films). The biggest problem they have is that they are treated condescendingly by all the adults they know, even the ones that try to help them. Whenever the story seems to move toward more darker elements, it shifts back to formulaic situations. The main problem the story presents is that young Americans during the WWII era lacked proper supervision...but there's an undercurrent of cultural and economic problems that the movie doesn't examine fully. 

Fans of Val Lewton's RKO horrors will see plenty of familiar faces, such as Kent Smith, Jean Brooks, and even Elizabeth Russell as Sarah's defense worker mom (the viewer even gets to see Russell in work overalls). Bonita Granville (who had played Nancy Drew in the movies) gets the best role as the world-wise Toddy. At first she comes off as unlikable and sarcastic, but she shows her true colors by helping out the naive Sarah and giving her a sense of independence. Unfortunately Toddy winds up being "punished" for her too-smart girl ways in an ending which seems forced and arbitrary. Toddy's boyfriend, a sharpy who runs a shady gas station, is played by a young Lawrence Tierney, who effortlessly makes an impression with his very small role. (It seems that Tierney is going to be a major focus of the story, but he disappears for almost the rest of the running time soon after he's introduced.) 

YOUTH RUNS WILD will be of interest to Val Lewton fans, and to those interested in the American home front during WWII. But due to apparent interference by RKO, the movie doesn't live up to expectations. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

DRIFTING (1923)

 





Kino continues to release rare silent movies on Blu-ray. A couple weeks ago I posted a review of their offering of Tod Browning's 1921 OUTSIDE THE LAW. The company has also brought out a Browning silent double feature, containing DRIFTING and WHITE TIGER. For today's purposes I'll be writing about DRIFTING. 

DRIFTING, produced by Universal in 1923, is another crime melodrama starring Priscilla Dean, with Oriental elements. Dean plays Cassie Cook, an American opium dealer based in Shanghai. Cassie (who is referred to in an intertitle as "the Poppy Princess") is getting tired of her shady lifestyle, and wants to go back to the states. She bets all of her remaining money on a horse race, and loses. This forces her and her dubious partner (Wallace Beery) to travel to a small village in the Chinese countryside, where their opium shipments come from. Cassie is supposed to waylay the government agent (Matt Moore) investigating the poppy fields. But she starts to have feelings for the him....as does the beautiful young daughter (Anna May Wong) of the man who is in charge of the opium operation. The opium growers, angry at interference with their trade, attack the village, causing all the main characters to fight for their lives. 

DRIFTING is entirely set in China, but it was filmed on the Universal backlot. It still has an almost epic feel to it, with an impressively designed Chinese village built for the film, and plenty of outdoor scenes. The Shanghai scenes in the beginning of the film almost border on the silly, but the story improves greatly once the characters get to the small village. The climax features a large battle between the poppy growers and the villagers, and it's very well handled, helped by dramatic tinting during the sequence. 

Priscilla Dean plays another bad girl who isn't really all that bad, and she does quite well in the role. She even gets to show off her prowess with a rifle during the battle in the village. Dean, however, has the movie stolen from her by the exquisite Anna May Wong, who was just a teenager when she made this film. Wong is so natural and moving in her role that one wishes she had far more screen time. The government agent hero is played by Matt Moore, who will be known by film buffs for playing the wimpy Hector in the silent version of THE UNHOLY THREE (which of course was directed by Tod Browning). I may be prejudiced due to his playing Hector, but I thought that Moore wasn't suited to be an action hero. 

There are other actors here with links to Tod Browning, such as Wallace Beery, and Edna Tichenor, who is famous for appearing in plenty of stills with Lon Chaney from the now-lost film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Tichenor plays Priscilla Dean's opium addicted friend, and she literally spends all her scant screen time strung out while laying in bed. 

On this Blu-ray Kino has used a 4K restoration of DRIFTING. The visual quality is very good (the tinting brings a great deal to the presentation). The music score, which is bombastic at times, is by Phillip Carli. The disc cover states that this Blu-ray is coded for A,B, and C regions. 

A new audio commentary is provided for DRIFTING, by silent movie historian Anthony Slide. Slide gives out a lot of technical and production info, and he discusses the controversy over casting white actors in Asian roles. 

DRIFTING has a lot more visual flair than one expects from a Tod Browning film, and it is less macabre than the director's more famous works. Despite the fact that it is essentially about drug dealing, the movie has a sentimental aspect to it at times. I'll be covering WHITE TIGER, and the rest of the extras on this disc, in an upcoming blog post. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

OUTSIDE THE LAW On Blu-ray From Kino

 





Another home video presentation of a rare silent classic from Kino. This time it is the 1920 OUTSIDE THE LAW, co-written and directed by Tod Browning. 

This was an early collaboration between Browning and Lon Chaney, but it is not a tale of the macabre. Set in San Francisco's Chinatown district, it details the efforts of jewel thieves Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean) and Dapper Bill (Wheeler Oakman) from being set up by the dastardly Black Mike (Lon Chaney). The story contains many elements that would be found in most of Browning's work--a small group of criminals infiltrating the homes of naive wealthy citizens, the idea of honor (or dishonor) among thieves, false identities, con games, and lawbreakers trying to change their ways. 

Lon Chaney's name may be at the top of the disc cover, but Priscilla Dean is the true star of this film. Dean is basically forgotten today (I barely know anything about her) but she was one of Universal's leading lights in the early 1920s. She appeared in a number of films under Browning's direction, and in OUTSIDE THE LAW I found her acting style to be very restrained and down-to-earth for the period. Dean's Molly is crafty and independent-minded, and she certainly doesn't need to require upon a man. If she's going to go straight, it's going to be on her own terms. 

Chaney still does make a major impression as the tough as nails Black Mike. (If Chaney had lived past 1930, I think he might have become the first real gangster movie star instead of the first real horror film star.) Chaney also plays a secondary role as a kindly Chinese servant. That role seems to exist just to show off Chaney's abilities in makeup, but the character does have an important factor in the climax. That climax, by the way, consists of some very brutal fistfights and gun battles. 

The climax would be even more notable if one was able to see it more clearly on this disc. At about an hour into the story, nitrate composition becomes very bad, and it lasts throughout the end of the film. I'm not trying to complain about this--Kino and Universal have done their best to make this film available to the public--but it has to be mentioned. The disc case states that this is a new 4K 35mm restoration, and for about the first hour, it looks impressive. An alternate ending from a 16mm version is included, but this does not feature the action-packed climax. There's also a comparison between some of the scenes from the 35mm and 16mm versions. The at times bombastic music score on this release is by Anton Sanko. 

This disc also has a new audio commentary by Anthony Slide. He gives out a lot of info on Priscilla Dean and Tod Browning in particular, along with background on the film's production and why the movie is in the shape it's in. 

OUTSIDE THE LAW may not have as much footage of Lon Chaney as some may want, but it is a very effective crime melodrama. It shows why Priscilla Dean was a major star at one time, and that Tod Browning was a fine storyteller during the silent era. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

THE APE On Blu-ray From Kino

 





In the late 1930s, Boris Karloff signed a deal with low-budget Monogram Pictures to star in a series of films concerning the exploits of a Chinese detective named Mr. Wong. Karloff's last film in the contract wound up being a horror film: 1940's THE APE, just released on Region A Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. 

Karloff plays Dr. Bernard Adrian, a researcher in a small town who is shunned by the local population. Adrian is determined to find a cure for polio--his own wife and daughter died from the disease, and the only person who is friendly to him, a beautiful young neighbor (Maris Wrixon), is suffering from it. When a circus comes to town, an animal trainer is mauled by a gorilla. Adrian uses the victim's spinal fluid in his quest for an antidote. The antidote appears to work, but Adrian needs more of it--and after he kills the gorilla when the beast breaks into his laboratory, the doctor comes up with the idea to use the creature's pelt and disguise as it, that way he can kill others for more spinal fluid. Needless to say, things don't work out too well. 

THE APE isn't as whacked-out as most Monogram horror product from the 1940s, but it still has its moments. For whatever reason, the townsfolk can't stand Dr. Adrian right from the get-go (at the beginning of the film, a bunch of bratty kids throw rocks at the doctor's house, and this is way before he starts to try to kill anybody). The story bends over backwards to make Adrian a sympathetic figure--the local citizens are for the most part dim-witted rubes, and the one person the doc does kill is an absolute louse. Karloff helps the film immeasurably with his low-key, committed performance. At the time THE APE was made, Karloff was playing a lot of mad (or at least determined) scientists--in a series of science-fiction films at Columbia, and in BLACK FRIDAY at Universal. Those movies and THE APE share some similar features, such as an elderly-looking Karloff dealing with test tubes, looking through a microscope, jotting down notes, etc. (Boris played so many overreaching scientists during this period that one wonders how he was able to differentiate between all the scripts.) 

The ape in THE APE was played by gorilla suit veteran Ray "Crash" Corrigan", and, no, he doesn't for a minute make you think you are watching a real animal. (No matter what you think of it as a story element, the "Guy running around in a gorilla suit" sub-plot lasted a long, long time.) The movie only lasts about an hour, which is just as well (the story wouldn't have held up too well much longer than that). The two writers credited, Curt Siodmak and Richard Carroll, came up with much better material in their careers. Director William Nigh was a poverty row mainstay by this time, but he had directed Lon Chaney during the silent era. 

Kino's presentation of the black and white THE APE is quite sharp, especially considering this is a Monogram picture (this certainly isn't a cheap public domain transfer). An image gallery is included, along with two different audio commentaries. One may wonder why a movie like THE APE deserves two commentaries, but I believe Kino must have realized that some special extras were needed for a hour long low-budget black and white film that can easily be accessed on YouTube. 

Tom Weaver's commentary has plenty of info and dry humor, as he tries to make sense of THE APE's plot machinations. Richard Harland Smith's talk focuses mainly on the careers of those who worked on the picture. After listening to both, you'll know all you need (and more) about THE APE. 

Is this Blu-ray worth buying? If you are a Boris Karloff fan, and a fan of this type of material, yes. Monogram's poverty row horrors have gotten a lot of flack over the years, but in my opinion Kino is doing a service for film buffs in giving some of these productions a proper presentation. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS

 





WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS (original Italian title IL PLANETA ERRANTE) is one of four 1965 Italian science-fiction films detailing the adventures of the crew of a space station called Gamma One. All four films were directed by Antonio Margheriti (the American versions of these features use his "Anthony Dawson" moniker). 

Sometime in the future, the Earth is reeling under a series of natural disasters. Scientists are convinced that these incidents are being caused by a phenomenon in outer space, and Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is sent to Gamma One to investigate. The testy Jackson and his crew discover a weird planet-like mass, and the closer it gets to Earth, the more destruction it causes. The men and women of Gamma One must destroy the mass before it's too late. 

WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS isn't as wild or as woolly as the other three entries in the series. In the early part of the story there's a lot of talk, most of it techno-babble. Much of the plot deals with Commander Jackson's relationships with various crew members, which makes the movie feel like a soap opera in space. It doesn't help that the Commander is in a foul mood all of the time. (I much prefer the leadership style of actor Tony Russel, who ran the space station in the first two Gamma One films.) As in the other stories in this series, there's a romantic triangle--the Commander is engaged to a General's daughter, but he has a relationship with Gamma One's communications officer, a red-haired beauty (Ombretta Colli). This situation doesn't really go anywhere, and one wonders why it was even introduced to begin with.

Things start to heat up when the crew gets to the planetoid. The bizarre mass is mostly covered by a red, jelly-like substance that sucks in unfortunate members of the crew. The Commander and his hand-picked team find a way into the mass, where they encounter giant spaghetti-like "arteries". Apparently the planetoid is some sort of living being (this aspect of the story should have been further developed). These sequences are visually striking, but they are hampered by mediocre attempts to show the characters floating and moving about in outer space. (These "space walks" happen frequently throughout the film.) 

The attempt to destroy the mass leads to a crew member's valiant sacrifice (a common story point in many 1950s and 60s science-fiction films), and the movie ends with a somber funeral--a unique way to climax an outer space adventure such as this. 

Actor Giacomo Rossi Stuart was a Eurocult veteran, and he'll be recognizable to Mario Bava fans. A minor role in the film is played by spaghetti western veteran Franco Ressel (he was the main villain in SABATA). The version of this film that I watched was dubbed in English. 

In summation, WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS isn't as outlandish or imaginative as the other films in the Gamma One series. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE

 


Out of all the blog posts that I have written, the one that has by far gotten the most hits is my examination of the screen pairings of Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. (dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2013/07/evelyn-ankers-lon-chaney-jr.html). My theory on why is that Svengoolie shows about once a month a movie featuring Ankers and/or Chaney, and those watching go on the internet to find out more about them. 

In that post I mentioned that there was one movie co-starring Ankers and Lon Jr. that I had not seen--a 1942 Universal production set in early 20th Century Alaska called NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE. Recently I discovered that the film is on YouTube, in a very blurry-looking condition. But it is there, and I did view it. 

I had always assumed that THE WOLF MAN was the first on-screen pairing between Evelyn Ankers and Chaney, but NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE was made first, even though it was released after. One could still say that THE WOLF MAN is the first real time Ankers and Lon significantly interacted with each other, since in NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE they barely have any screen time together. 

The beginning main titles call the film "Jack London's NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE", because it is supposedly based on one of the famed writer's stories. I'm no Jack London expert, but I have a feeling that very little of his work made it into the finished product. (A number of writers are credited with the screenplay, and story credit is given to William Castle, of all people.) 

A group of settlers in early-1900s Alaska are trying to build a decent community out of the wilderness. Into this area arrives a mining expert named John Thorn (Broderick Crawford). Thorn has traveled to the area at the request of the unscrupulous Nate Carson (Lon Chaney Jr.). Carson has evidence there's a gold mine nearby, but the settlers are blocking his access to it. Carson hopes to drive the settlers away by stopping shipments of their food supplies. Thorn decides to help the settlers, one reason being his attraction to town leader Mary Sloan (Evelyn Ankers). It all leads to a knock-down, drag-out fight between Thorn and Carson. 

NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE is very much a "B" movie, being black & white and only running about an hour. Its plot is one that can be found in many Westerns--the conflict between those who want to settle the land and build something for the future and those who want to make a quick buck. There's nothing extraordinary here, except for maybe the outdoor locations around Big Bear Lake in California that were used (and which the fuzzy-looking version of this movie I saw on YouTube doesn't do justice.) 



Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers

The casting of Broderick Crawford as the main hero is somewhat unique. Crawford and Lon Jr. had a lot in common--both of them were more character actor types, big burly guys who had a working class persona about them. Crawford could have easily played Chaney's role. One gets the feeling that Crawford would much rather be carousing with Lon instead of helping out the clean-cut settlers. There's a hint of romance between Crawford and Ankers' characters, but it never seems real, due to the fact the two actors appear totally incompatible with one another. Ankers is her usual regal self, which makes the viewer wonder what in the heck a lady like her is doing in the Alaskan wilderness. Evelyn constantly looks as if she's not enjoying what she's doing--and, if the stories about Crawford and Chaney's rabble-rousing on location are true, one can understand why. 

Lon Jr. makes a good villain, even if he's more low-key than one would expect in the role. (If Chaney had played this same role later in his career, I think he would have been far more blustery and obnoxious.) There's plenty of comic relief character actors here, such as Andy Devine, Lloyd Corrigan, Willie Fung, and Keye Luke, and far too much time is taken up with their antics.

The director of NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE was Erle C. Kenton, a name familiar to classic Universal Monster fans. Kenton's main job here is to keep the story moving as fast as possible (and I bet he was told to keep the budget down as well). The huge brawl that Crawford and Lon engage in at the climax is well done--it has a realistic sloppiness to it, and it appears that most of it was performed by the two actors themselves. 

I wouldn't necessarily say that NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE is must viewing for Universal Monster fans, or fans of Lon Jr. and Evelyn Ankers. Since the couple barely had any screen time together in it, the movie doesn't shed any new light on their future pairings. It may explain why the two were not friends in real life. One wonders what Ankers' reaction would have been if someone had told her on the set that she and Chaney would be spending a lot of working time together in the next four years. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD On Blu-ray From Kino

 





CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is a Horror-Western, made by Universal and released in 1959. I first saw it on the "Son of Svengoolie" program back in the mid-1980s. One would expect a title like this to be included in one of Shout Factory's recent Universal Horror Blu-ray sets, but it gets a release on its own, courtesy of Kino Lorber. 

In the late 1800s, somewhere in the American Southwest, a small town is undergoing a series of mysterious deaths. The victims (stop me if you've heard this before) have tiny puncture marks on their necks. Dolores Carter (Kathleen Crowley) has other problems--her family's ranch is being threatened by the land-hungry Buffer (Bruce Gordon). After Dolores' father and younger brother are killed, she seeks out a gunman to settle the score, much to the consternation of her boyfriend, the town preacher (Eric Fleming). A mysterious, black-clad stranger named Drake Robey (Michael Pate) comes to Dolores' aid. Preacher Dan doesn't trust Robey, especially when he does some sleuthing and finds out that the gunslinger is one of the undead. Robey wants more from Dolores than just her blood, and it all leads to a showdown between him and the preacher. 

One automatically assumes that CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is somewhat silly, due to the mixing of totally different genres. But it comes out better than expected, considering that it is very low budget. Director and co-writer Edward Dein provides some notable set-ups, and he avoids any tongue-in-cheek humor. 

The leading attribute of CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is Michael Pate's portrayal of Drake Robey. Pate is by far the most charismatic member of the cast. His Robey has a cocky gunfighter vibe, but he also has a sense of tragedy about him, explained by a flashback which reveals how he became a vampire. Pate's Robey isn't totally evil--he appears to have feelings for Dolores, or at least he desires her. He's also the only one in the story that stands up to typical Western bad guy Buffer. Pate's vampire is a bit different than other earlier screen incarnations of the undead, in that he can still move around in daylight, cast shadows, and still pine for a normal life. Michael Pate's Drake Robey is a big-screen vampiric performance that should get more respect. 

The rest of the cast is filled with the type of actors one sees cropping up on various classic TV shows on MeTV every day--Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon, Edward Binns, John Hoyt, and so on. Eric Fleming, who had just started on RAWHIDE when he made this, gets stuck with the "David Manners" role, and instead of heroic, he comes off as stuffy and disagreeable. (It makes sense that Dolores appears to be attracted to Drake Robey.) 

The MeTV vibe extends to the movie's style--it's black and white, and filmed on generic Western sets and locations. (If you came into the middle of the picture, without knowing what it was about, you'd think you had stumbled onto an episode of an old TV show.) Despite that, it's an intriguing tale, particularly for fans of vampire cinema. 

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen on this disc, and the picture quality is quite sharp. The sound is excellent as well, bringing out Irving Gertz's ulta-spooky music score. 

The main extra on this Blu-ray is a new audio commentary by Tom Weaver. As expected, it's filled with facts and trivia, and by Weaver's remembrances of his personal interactions with the director and members of the cast. (For whatever reason, Weaver seems to be a bit snarkier than usual this time around.) A few guests make vocal appearances on the talk, including David Schecter, who discusses the film's music. An extensive image gallery is included (ironically almost none of the advertising artwork reveals that the story is set in the American Old West). A few trailers for other Kino horror/sci-fi Blu-rays are also here. 

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is one of the last films made by Universal on its lot that dealt with Gothic horror elements. It certainly isn't on the same level as the monster classics made by the company in the 1930s and 40s, but it is effective, and the gunslinger-vampire angle makes it stand out. 



Sunday, October 11, 2020

ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE

 





ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE is a 1960 Italian science-fiction film, directed by Antonio Margheriti. I viewed it on the Tubi streaming channel. The version I saw had an American International Pictures logo at the beginning, and an English voice track and credits. (Margheriti was credited with his usual pseudonym, Anthony Dawson.) 

In the year 2116, reporter Ray Peterson (Rik Von Nutter) is assigned to cover a story on a space satellite. Upon his arrival Peterson receives a frosty reception from the satellite's crew and its commander (David Montresor), who think that the reporter will just be a nuisance. Peterson saves the satellite's navigator, Lucy (Gabriella Farinon) from injury, and the two are instantly attracted to one another, further antagonizing the commander, who also has an interest in the girl. Those on the satellite learn that a wayward spaceship, Alpha Two, has re-entered the solar system, and is on a collision course for Earth. Ray goes along on an attempt to destroy Alpha Two, and he winds up landing on and entering the craft in order to stop it. 

ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE doesn't have anywhere near the flash and flair of the later sci-fi entries helmed by Antonio Margheriti. The movie tries to take a realistic approach to what it would be like to live and work in outer space, but it is hindered by some desultory special effects work and generic characters. Ray Peterson is more annoying than heroic--for a guy that lives in the 22nd Century, and has been in space several times, and is a reporter to boot, he doesn't seem to know all that much about what it is going on around him. He's constantly asking basic questions about everything, which enables the crew of the satellite to explain to him--and the viewer--what is going on. The actor who plays Peterson, Rik Von Nutter, isn't helped by being dubbed, but he's not exactly all that magnetic on the screen to begin with. (Von Nutter would go on to be one of the least-remembered men who played James Bond's friend Felix Leiter in THUNDERBALL.) 

This movie has only one major female character in Lucy, and she doesn't wear any skimpy futuristic costumes--she spends all of her time in common work clothes or a space suit. Love triangles would be a recurring theme in Antonio Margheriti's science-fiction features, but in this story it seems contrived, since Peterson and Lucy fall for each other having barely met. 

The person who catches one's attention the most here is a space veteran named Al, played by a black American actor (and Broadway dancer) named Archie Savage. Al is wise and philosophical, and he acts as sort of a mentor to Ray. Having any black male play a major role in any science-fiction movie made during this period was unusual, let alone the role of an intelligent, competent individual. One wishes that the film revolved around Al. 

Despite all the outer space incidents depicted in it, this movie is still very talky, with plenty of interior scenes. The special effects look more like toys than models. The wild, otherworldy aspects one sees in other Italian science-fiction films are absent here. There's no aliens, or uncharted galactic realms, or any real villains. The Alpha Two spaceship that is supposed to be a threat to all humanity isn't very impressive, and Ray attempts to shut it down by using some good old-fashioned wire cutters. There are a few good ideas here, such as Ray and the crew of the spaceship taking him to the satellite being put into hibernation during the trip. The viewer isn't given much of an idea what society in the 22nd Century is like, except for hints that a world order is in charge. While in space, all the characters are assigned a letters and numbers combination code, and this is displayed quite prominently on the backs of their uniforms. In my mind this made them resemble inmates in a prison. For some reason all the scenes in outer space are in black & white. 

ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE was the first film that Antonio Margheriti would receive full credit for directing, and his style--and choice of subject matter--would get much bolder as time went by. Margheriti would follow this movie up with BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, a much better science-fiction tale (I wrote a blog post on it a couple years ago). It was with a series of features about a space station called Gamma One that Margheriti's imagination and creativity would really flourish. ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE just isn't as riveting as Margheriti's later works. 


Saturday, October 10, 2020

Brian Clemens' THRILLER--"Spell Of Evil"

 


Among the many streaming services I have access to through Disney+ and Xfinity is the Tubi channel. I've seen a lot of obscure movies and shows on Tubi, and I've written a number of blog posts on them. 

I recently discovered that Tubi carries episodes of a early 1970s British TV show called THRILLER. This isn't the famed Boris Karloff THRILLER that was produced in the 1960s. The British THRILLER was created by Brian Clemens, best known for his work on THE AVENGERS. 

I had no knowledge whatsoever of this show. Being that it was made in England during the seventies, one can assume that there were many veterans of Hammer Films involved in the program--and that assumption is correct. An episode listing that particularly caught my eye was for "Spell of Evil". This entry starred Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel, who played the young married couple in one of Hammer's best films, THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. The episode also starred Diane Cilento, who worked for Hammer and made a memorable appearance in THE WICKER MAN. 

"Spell of Evil" starts out with a pre-credits sequence that shows the wife of businessman Tony Mansell (Edward de Souza) dying of a mysterious illness. Months later, the lonely Tony decides to submit his name to a dating service. Also immediately after he does this, a bold raven-haired beauty named Clara (Diane Cilento) shows up at his office, and sweeps him off his feet. Tony and Clara get married, and the businessman's life seems revitalized. Tony's loyal and efficient secretary, Liz (Jennifer Daniel) isn't so sure. Liz is distrustful of the new Mrs. Mansell, and her feelings are exacerbated by the fact that she has a crush on her boss. Strange occurrences start happening to Tony's associates, and the man himself starts to suffer from the same symptoms as his late first wife. Liz investigates the background of the mysterious Clara, and discovers that she is a centuries-old witch. 

"Spell of Evil" is an okay tale, but it's fairly easy to discern what's going to happen after the first ten minutes of the show. (Terence Feely is credited as the writer.) Diane Cilento acts suspicious from the very get go, and you'd have to be rather dense not to know that she's behind all the "unexplained" circumstances. The episode is about 70 minutes long, and honestly the story could have been edited down to a half-hour and it wouldn't have lost much. 

Like most British TV shows of this period, the interior scenes of this episode were shot on videotape, while the very few outdoor shots were on film. This gives the show a soap-opera type of feel, which I think mitigates the suspense. There's also a few annoying zoom-ins (the director of "Spell of Evil" was also the show's producer, John Sichel). 

Hammer fans will enjoy seeing Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel together again (this time in modern dress). De Souza is hindered by a wavy perm in his hair that is distracting. Daniel plays very much the same type of character that she portrayed in THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and THE REPTILE--a kindly, stable individual who tries to help others. She is the one who finds out the truth about Clara, by seeking out a Van Helsing-like professor. This aspect of the tale comes near the very end of the show, and more should have been made of it. Diane Cilento gets the showiest role, and she makes the most of it. Would a more subtle approach to the character of Clara had worked? Maybe not, since the episode wasn't really all that thrilling. 

It's hard to judge a television show on the basis of just one episode. If you're familiar with most fantasy/horror tropes, "Spell of Evil" will be very predictable. I might check out a few more episodes of this THRILLER--there's plenty of others that feature Hammer stars. 


Thursday, October 8, 2020

TIME WITHOUT PITY

 





Out of all the films that Turner Classic Movies is showing this October in honor of Peter Cushing being their Star of the Month, the only one I had never seen was TIME WITHOUT PITY. This is a 1957 black & white melodrama directed by Joseph Losey, with a very distinguished cast. 

Things are not going very well for failed writer David Graham (Michael Redgrave). He's just gotten out of a sanatorium in Canada, where he was undergoing rehabilitation for his alcoholism, and he was without contact with the outside world. Back in London, he finds that his estranged son Alec (Alec McCowen) is going to be executed in 24 hours for murdering his girlfriend! Graham gets little help from his son's lawyer (Peter Cushing), so the man decides to do some investigating on his own. He learns that his son had a friendship with the family of Robert Stanford (Leo McKern), an overbearing automobile magnate. Graham is desperate to find something that will clear his son, but the young man won't open up to him, and the Stanford family has plenty of secrets of their own. The real obstacle is Graham himself....can he keep himself sober, and focused, on the almost impossible task at hand?

The "Lead character has only 24 hours to save someone from being executed for a crime they didn't commit" plot has been used in several movies and TV shows. TIME WITHOUT PITY gives a unique spin on this plot due to the character Michael Redgrave plays and his performance. David Graham is a fidgety, out-of-sorts fellow, which is understandable due to the circumstances that he is dealing with. The suspense in this tale comes from the fact that the viewer doesn't believe that Graham isn't going to be much help to his son whatsoever. 

Graham meets a number of eccentric people during his short odyssey, including Robert Stanford's not-so-dutiful wife (Ann Todd), the auto magnate's lover (a sultry Lois Maxwell) and her flighty mother (Renee Houston), and his son's girlfriend's sister (an unrecognizable Joan Plowright in her big screen debut). Hammer fans will notice Richard Wordsworth and Peter Copley in very small roles. (Even though he's playing a "normal" person, Wordsworth still comes off as creepy.) Due to the heavy dramatics of the story, most of the acting is overwrought, particularly from Leo McKern. A pre-credits scene lets the audience know what really happened to Alec's girlfriend, but even from that standpoint McKern comes off as rather obvious. 

Joseph Losey and cinematographer Freddie Francis (billed as "Frederick") make effective use of real-life London locations, but they also add in such artistic touches as plenty of reflective surfaces and several clocks (as to be expected in a story such as this). The bit-of-a-twist ending is surprising, if downbeat. But it fits the film rather well, since the entire affair is downbeat. 

As for Peter Cushing....even though he gets fourth billing, he has very little screen time overall, and he spends most of it reacting to Michael Redgrave. Cushing does give a solid, low-key performance--he's a model of restraint compared to the other actors in the film. But I wouldn't call this role a major event in Cushing's movie career. 

TIME WITHOUT PITY is well-done, and it has some suspenseful elements to it. I liked it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it multiple times. 


Sunday, October 4, 2020

My Favorite Episodes Of THE TWILIGHT ZONE











A couple of weeks ago, the legendary Joshua Kennedy informed me that he had been engaged in watching several episodes of the original THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV series. He asked me what my favorite episodes were...and that was not an easy question. THE TWILIGHT ZONE is one of my favorite TV series of all time, and it's one of the few series in which I have every episode on home video. Making a manageable list of favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes required a bit of work, since there are so many of them, and so many of them are very well done. 

There's very few TWILIGHT ZONE entries that I would call weak or even mediocre. The entire five season run of the show had a level of excellence and intelligence that is still rare in American television today. Obviously the brilliant writer Rod Serling was the main force behind THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but several talented individuals contributed, including many classic Hollywood veteran directors and actors, and even music composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. 

The majority of episodes were written by Serling, but plenty of other greats penned tales for the series, notably Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. THE TWILIGHT ZONE is best known for its fantasy/science-fiction/horror aspects, but it never was a show for kids--there's a sense of real adult drama in the majority of the episodes that one almost never finds in the genre of the fantastic. Most of the stories told on THE TWILIGHT ZONE are still as relevant as ever (some even more so). 

So here's my list of favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. I tried to avoid picking just the more renowned ones, but certainly some of the most famous tales will wind up here. Please remember that this list only applies to what in my opinion is the real TWILIGHT ZONE, the 1959-64 TV series. This has nothing to do with any later reboots, including the most recent one, which I have no particular inclination to watch.

"The Hitch-Hiker" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling, Directed by Alvin Ganzer
A young woman (Inger Stevens) is taking a cross-country trip by car....and she happens to see the same hitch-hiker over and over again. A simple tale--but quite effectively realized, and perfect for THE TWILIGHT ZONE format. 

"Time Enough at Last" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by John Brahm
A introspective bookworm (Burgess Meredith) survives a nuclear war...but he's not all that put out by the situation, since it gives him plenty of time to read...or so he thinks. This is one of the best known episodes, and it features many of the elements one would see in the show over and over again--put-upon ordinary characters, the end of the world, and the idea that you should be careful what you wish for. 

"The Fever" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Robert Florey
An uptight middle-aged man (Everett Sloane) reluctantly accompanies his wife on a free trip to Las Vegas. By happenstance the man puts a coin in a slot machine--and he's hooked. I'll never forget this one, mainly because of the way the slot machine "calls" its victim's name through the sound of clinking coins!

"A Stop at Willoughby" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Robert Parrish
A burned-out businessman (James Daly) gets off his commuter train and finds that he is in a bucolic 19th Century town called Willoughby. As the businessman's life gets worse, he decides that Willoughby is where he needs to be. One could look at this as a tragic tale....but maybe the main character is really better off, wherever he wound up. 

"Walking Distance" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Robert Stevens
This tale is the flip side of "A Stop at Willoughby". Another businessman tired of the rat race (Gig Young) goes back to his small home town, only to find that is is exactly the way it was when he was a child. But this time, the lesson is that you can't--and you really shouldn't--go home again. One of the most moving episodes, featuring music by Bernard Herrmann. 

"The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (First Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Ron Winston
There may have not been any internet arguments when this episode was first aired in 1960, but the ability of humans to turn on and attack each other over essentially nothing was still the same. You don't need aliens to destroy the Earth when humanity is more than willing to do it themselves. 

"Long Live Walter Jameson" (First Season) Written by Charles Beaumont Directed by Anton Leader
Walter Jameson (Kevin McCarthy) really, really looks young for his age. THE TWILIGHT ZONE would deal with the subject of immortality many times, but none better than this episode. 

"Night of the Meek" (Second Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Jack Smight
This was one of the few episodes of the show to be shot on videotape. A drunken department store Santa Claus (Art Carney) gets fired on Christmas Eve, but then is given the gift of becoming the real Saint Nick. An unusually touching and warm tale from Serling. 

"Shadow Play" (Second Season) Written by Charles Beaumont Directed by John Brahm 
A man (Dennis Weaver) who is on death row tries to convince everyone around him that he is actually having a nightmare, and if he is executed, their lives will end as well. An episode with a truly mind-bending and thought-provoking premise. 

"The Invaders" (Second Season) Written by Richard Matheson Directed by Douglas Heyes
Yes, it's the "tiny men in spacesuits threaten old farm woman" episode. But it still packs a wallop, due to the overall presentation of the idea and Agnes Moorhead's performance. 

"On Thursday We Leave For Home" (Fourth Season) Written by Rod Serling Directed by Buzz Kulik 
This is one of the hour-long episodes of the show. The extra-long format didn't really work for it, but it did for this story. A group of colonists have been stranded on a backwater planet for years. The only reason they have been able to survive is through the strength and determination of their self-appointed leader, a man named Benteen (James Whitmore). When a spaceship arrives, and the group suddenly learns that they are going to be taken back to Earth, their reliance on Benteen goes away, and the man becomes angry and jealous. This episode is an example of what THE TWILIGHT ZONE did best, in using a fantasy backdrop to examine everyday human behavior. This story contains some of Serling's best writing, and James Whitmore excels in the prime role of Benteen, a man who sadly finds out he's not as important as he once thought. 


Saturday, October 3, 2020

Peter Cushing--The Turner Classic Movies Star Of The Month For October

 




Ever since I've been on the internet, I've constantly suggested that the Turner Classic Movies cable television channel feature Peter Cushing as a Star of the Month, or at least give him a day during their annual Summer Under The Stars event. A few years ago, TCM featured Christopher Lee as a Star of the Month (in October of course). That got my hopes up that eventually Cushing would receive the same honor. 

Now it has finally come to pass--Peter Cushing is the Star of the Month on TCM for October 2020. Should it have happened much earlier than this? Probably, but this news is one of the best things to happen in this ridiculously horrible year, so we might as well enjoy it while we can. 

Every Monday night in October various Cushing films will be shown starting at 8 PM American EST, and continuing to the following early morning, a total of 25 movies in all. 

An examination of the schedule reveals plenty of the "usual suspects" when it comes to Cushing's acting career, but there's more than a few surprises as well. Let's look at the schedule week by week. (All start times are American Eastern Standard Time.)

Monday, October 5-Tuesday October 6

CASH ON DEMAND 8PM

THE END OF THE AFFAIR 9:30PM

TIME WITHOUT PITY 11:30PM

JOHN PAUL JONES 1:15AM

HAMLET 3:30AM

A CHUMP AT OXFORD 6:15AM

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT 7:30AM

This is an unusual way to start off the Cushing tribute, since he has very small roles in every one of these films except CASH ON DEMAND and THE END OF THE AFFAIR. CASH ON DEMAND gets the prime time slot, as well it should, since Cushing does have a starring role in it, and it contains one of his best screen performances. (It is also a Hammer film which is not a horror movie.) The last film on this list, VIGIL IN THE NIGHT, is an example of Cushing's work in Hollywood before WWII. It also stars Carole Lombard, who was born on October 6--and because of that, TCM will be showing Lombard movies for most of the day. I point this out because Peter Cushing is my favorite actor, and Carole Lombard is my favorite actress. 

Monday, October 12-Tuesday, October 13

SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST 8PM                                                                                          

DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS 9:30PM

DALEKS INVASION EARTH 2150 A.D. 11PM

SHE 12:30AM

VIOLENT PLAYGROUND 2:30AM

CORRUPTION 4:30AM

Some interesting titles here, with Cushing playing famous characters such as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Dr. Who. The 1965 Hammer version of SHE pops up on TCM often, while VIOLENT PLAYGROUND is much like the Oct. 5/6 lineup in that Cushing has a small role in it. The exceedingly sleazy CORRUPTION gets the late late late slot, which is just as well. 

Monday, October 19-Tuesday, October 20

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES 8PM

HORROR OF DRACULA 9:30PM

THE MUMMY 11:15PM

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN 1AM

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN 2:45AM

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED 4:30AM

Hammer time here, with TCM showing most of the best horror films from the company that Cushing appeared in. I think it's kind of refreshing that THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES gets the prime time slot, instead of Cushing as either Van Helsing or Baron Frankenstein. Cushing's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes for Hammer doesn't get screened nearly as often as his Gothic horror roles. I do wish that FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED got a better time slot, since it is one of Hammer's best (although darkest) films, with Cushing at his most chilling. 

Monday, October 26-Tuesday, October 27

NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT 8PM

MADHOUSE 9:45PM

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE 11:30PM

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN 1:30AM

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA 3:15AM

DRACULA A.D. 1972 4:45AM 

One would expect TCM to start things off with the two Cushing-Lee modern Dracula movies, but instead they go with the somewhat obscure NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT and MADHOUSE. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is one of the better Amicus anthologies that Cushing appeared in, and while SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN has its merits, PC is only in it for one scene! 

All in all, I think the films being screened give a decent overall presentation of Cushing's movie career. There's some of his supporting roles before he started working for Hammer, some of this all-time horror classics, plenty of his collaborations with Christopher Lee, and a few titles that show what he had to go through due to his status as a genre star. 

For those who do not own most of these titles on home video, or are not that familiar with them, or do not have the ability to record them, you might find yourselves staying up quite late (especially on October 19 and October 26). But it'll be worth it! 

I'm very happy Turner Classic Movies chose to honor Peter Cushing in this way. He's always been beloved by monster movie geeks, but this gives his extraordinary acting talent a chance to be exposed to a more mainstream audience. 


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--Again

 


Monday night I ventured back out to an actual movie theater. I can't even remember the last time I was in a movie theater--was it for 1917, in the early part of this year?? Anyway, it felt like it had been the year 1917 since I last saw a film on the big screen. 

And what did I choose to watch? A movie that I've seen about a hundred times, a movie I own on different home video formats, a movie in which I know every camera shot and line of dialogue by heart--THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. 

So why pay to see it again?? Well, it is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Whenever you have a chance to see any of the Original Sacred Trilogy on the big screen, you take it. (And yes, I'm fully aware it isn't the original theatrical version.) It also gave me a chance to go back to the theater--something that I've missed doing, even though the experience isn't nearly as enchanting as it used to be....and I'm talking about what it was like before the virus mess. 

There was only one other person at the showing I attended, which was fine with me. I sat in the exact center of the theater. Did I sneak in candy, like usual? You're damn right I did. 

There were some new trailers shown--one for a dopey "family comedy" with Robert DeNiro as the crotchety grandpa, and Uma Thurman as the mom (Why, Uma? Why??). There was also a trailer for the new Wonder Woman movie I had not seen before, and the more footage I see of this, the worse and worse it looks. 

As for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--what more can I say? This viewing was just a reiteration of what I had already felt for years. It has by far the best visuals of any Star Wars film. What I mean by that is that it has the best production design, the best art direction, the best cinematography, and the best overall special effects. Combined with John Williams' exquisite music score and Ben Burtt's sound design, the result is a film that deserves to be seen in a real theater, with a proper sound system. 

The other thing that struck me while watching EMPIRE on the big screen again is how clean and uncluttered the storyline is. There's no fluff, no filler. The film has a very smooth flow to it, especially compared with movies today. I can't tell you how many times in the 21st Century I've sat in a movie theater and said to myself, "When is this going to end?" I've even said that during movies I've enjoyed. You don't ever say that during the Original Sacred Trilogy. This version of EMPIRE runs a little over two hours, and every modern filmmaker could learn something from that. 

So, essentially, my return to the movie theater wasn't particularly noteworthy, other than having to wear a mask--and you don't have to wear one when you're stuffing Resse's Pieces in your mouth. I know some people are hesitant about going back to see a movie on the big screen, but I'm not. I'll go again if there's something I want to see--but at the rate things are going, that may not be in a while. What theater chains need to do is re-release more classics--and I'm not talking about just generically popular stuff from the 1980s. It's a human trait to want to go out and do something, and get out of the house. No matter what setup you have in your own home, it's not going to match the experience of seeing a great or beloved film in an actual theater. 



Sunday, September 27, 2020

THE GREEN SLIME

 





In the mid 1960s, a quartet of Italian science-fiction films were made concerning the adventures of a futuristic space station called Gamma One. The films were directed by the legendary Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson). The Gamma One movies are colorful, wild sci-fi adventures, with plenty of aliens, ray guns, and explosions. Producers Ivan Reiner and Walter Manley had worked on the English-language versions of the Gamma One films, and in 1968 they mounted another science-fiction action adventure, this time to be made in Japan with a non-Japanese cast. This story takes place on Gamma Three, and the result was the notorious THE GREEN SLIME. 

Instead of working with Japan's Toho or Daiei studios, who were quite familiar with science-fiction storylines and effects, the Toei company was chosen to handle the production. The director of THE GREEN SLIME was Kinji Fukasaku, who would later go on the make the highly influential BATTLE ROYALE. The stars of the film were Robert Horton (WAGON TRAIN), Richard Jaeckel (THE DIRTY DOZEN), and Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL). 

Sometime in the future, a humongous asteroid given the name "Flora" (are asteroids named like hurricanes??) is on a course to ram straight into the Earth. No-nonsense Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is sent to the space station Gamma Three to lead a team to land on the asteroid and blow it up. Gamma Three's commander is Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel). Rankin and Elliott served together before, and they were once the best of friends--but they grew apart due to different leadership styles and their shared interest in Gamma Three's sultry doctor, Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi). When Rankin and his team (which includes Elliott) land on the asteroid to plant explosives, they discover an eerie green slime that quickly spreads everywhere. The group sets off the explosives, and manages to get back to Gamma Three just in time--but one of the men has brought back a small patch of the slime on his space suit. The energy that is used to decontaminate the suit mutates the slime into a bizarre one-eyed creature with flapping tentacles. The thing feeds on energy, so hitting it with laser blasts only makes it stronger--and its blood starts mutating into other creatures. Soon the station is overrun with them, and Rankin and Elliott have to set aside their differences and find a way to destroy this threat once and for all. 

I watched THE GREEN SLIME for the very first time last night, and my first impression was that it reminded me of several other genre outings. The movie could be called a combination of ARMAGEDDON and ALIEN. The various models and gadgets used in the FX sequences look very much like they belong on the THUNDERBIRDS TV show (the early part of THE GREEN SLIME, dealing with the mission to destroy the asteroid, plays out very much like a typical THUNDERBIRDS episode). The rivalry between Rankin and Elliott, and their mutual attraction to Lisa, is a subplot that can be found in several war movies. THE GREEN SLIME has a campy reputation now, but its story structure and elements are still being used in much higher profile productions today. 

What makes THE GREEN SLIME particularly notable (and infamous) are the monsters. They are almost impossible to describe, so I've added a picture of them below. The creatures fit the tradition of Japanese kaiju being as outlandish as possible, without having any concern over whether they make any sense. The viewer gets to see far too much of the monsters, and this only exacerbates their rubbery man-in-a-suit aspects. It doesn't help that the creatures move about like a bunch of kids wearing bulky Halloween costumes. One has to wonder how the monsters would have turned out if the THE GREEN SLIME had been made in Italy, like the Gamma One films, since Antonio Margheriti was also a FX artist. 



What THE GREEN SLIME turns into

THE GREEN SLIME does feature some determined performances by Robert Horton and Richard Jaeckel. Both actors deserve credit for playing their roles with absolute sincerity. Luciana Paluzzi's doctor isn't just a damsel and distress--she's a capable professional who is an important part of the Gamma Three team. Most of the supporting cast were apparently non-actor Americans who happened to be living in Japan at the time--and it shows. One of the main officers on Gamma Three is played by Robert Dunham, who also appeared in a number of Toho kaiju features. Linda Miller, the leading lady of KING KONG ESCAPES, is also here, but she's basically an extra (one is able to glimpse her briefly in a couple scenes if you look hard enough). 

According to Bill Cooke's cover story on THE GREEN SLIME in VIDEO WATCHDOG #162 (which most of the information in this blog post comes from), the Japanese version of the film is significantly different than the English-language one. The Japanese version is much shorter--but it contains scenes that are not in the American cut. (The version I watched on the Xfinity TCM app was the full 90 minute English-language cut.) 

I liked THE GREEN SLIME...but one must remember that this is the type of movie that interests me, and that I've spent most of my life watching vintage science fiction and horror films. I can forgive just about anything in older monster movies, except boredom--and no matter what you may think of THE GREEN SLIME, it isn't boring. There's very little filler in it, and if one accepts the premise (and the style of the special effects), it's entertaining. I realize that many will not be able to get over the look and actions of the creatures (or the main title song--yes, I said title song), but THE GREEN SLIME is a rollicking far-out adventure with stalwart heroes and plenty of imaginative elements.