Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Book Review: THE BODY SNATCHER--Cold-Blooded Murder, Robert Louis Stevenson, And The Making Of A Horror Film Classic

 





Of all the movie thrillers Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s, THE BODY SNATCHER, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, is by far my favorite. It contains what I feel is one of Boris Karloff's greatest screen performances, along with a beautifully written script and atmospheric direction from Robert Wise. Scott Allen Nollen has written books on both Karloff and Stevenson, and now, with his wife Yuyun Yuningsih Nollen, he creates a volume that analyses THE BODY SNATCHER from a number of aspects. 

THE BODY SNATCHER--Cold-Blooded Murder, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Making of a Horror Film Classic (published by Bear Manor Media) is a wide-ranging book that starts off with a quick chapter detailing the exploits of Burke and Hare, the legendary murderers who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his tale. Nollen then gives a summary of Stevenson's life, and follows up with chapters covering the production of THE BODY SNATCHER film, how the movie was sold and received by audiences and critics at the time, and a scene by scene analysis of the entire movie. 

Nollen winds up the book with a chapter on other films based on the Burke and Hare story, while also mentioning other Robert Louis Stevenson adaptations that Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were involved in. 

As one can surmise, there's plenty of info here, but the authors do not get bogged down in detail, and the book is a delight to read. (If anything, I thought some of the chapters were too short.) The book is filled with photos, including a number of stills from THE BODY SNATCHER that I had never seen before. Greg Mank provides a Foreword. 

Obviously, one's enjoyment of this book will depend on how much one appreciates THE BODY SNATCHER film. There's still plenty of things to attract interest here. This is a book that should get the attention of Karloff fans, film buffs, and those who love English Gothic literature and historical legend. 

Bear Manor Media has been publishing a number of great movie-related books in the past few years, and the Nollens' THE BODY SNATCHER joins the list. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

CROSSED SWORDS On Blu-ray From Kino

 




CROSSED SWORDS is a 1977 film adaptation of Mark Twain's story THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. The movie was produced by the Salkind family, who were behind such films as the 1970s Three Musketeer series and SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. 

This is a title I had very little knowledge of, and it doesn't seem to have had made much of an impact when it was originally released. But it is a high-class, well-made, entertaining production, with plenty of first rate talents in front of and behind the camera. It deserves to be better known, and Kino Lorber has just released it on Blu-ray. 

Set in England at the end of King Henry VIII's reign in the middle 1500s, the story concerns Tom Canty (Mark Lester), a poor teenager who has to steal to live. Tom inadvertently blunders into the royal palace, where he encounters Prince Edward (also Lester), the heir to the throne. The two look exactly alike, and the Prince comes upon the idea of the duo switching identities as a jest. The boys wind up separated, and the Prince, in the guise of Tom, is kicked out of the palace, while Tom is forced to pretend that he is Edward. Out in the streets, Edward finds an ally in a soldier of fortune named Miles Hendon (Oliver Reed). Edward tries to convince Miles, and everyone else he comes into contact with, that he is the rightful heir to the throne, while Tom, stuck in the palace, finds to his dismay that the King has died, and he is being prepared for coronation. 

Considering who was behind CROSSED SWORDS, one might assume that the movie is along the lines of THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. But CROSSED SWORDS was directed by Richard Fleischer, not Richard Lester. The more overt humorous elements of Lester's Musketeers films are toned down here--Fleischer provides more of a classic Hollywood sensibility. CROSSED SWORDS does have some lighthearted moments, but it has a realistic tone. The sets and costumes are quite impressive, and there's stunning cinematography by Jack Cardiff, backed by a lively music score by Maurice Jarre.

There's a number of great guest stars here, and even though all their roles are relatively small, they still manage to make an impact. Ernest Borgnine plays Tom's cruel father, and Rex Harrison is the witty Duke of Norfolk. George C. Scott is a bandit chief, while Charlton Heston gives a particularly fine turn as the sickly, gout-ridden Henry VIII. The fine character actor Harry Andrews has a role as well, and Hammer Films fans will be pleased to know that Michael Ripper has a small but important part. One supporting player that merits special mention is Lalla Ward as Prince Edward's older sister Elizabeth, the future queen. 

The real stars of CROSSED SWORDS are Oliver Reed and Mark Lester. Lester is good in the dual role, but at times he seems overwhelmed by all the luminaries surrounding him. Reed gives what I think is one of the best performances of his film career as Miles Hendon. He totally gives his all in the role, throwing himself about with reckless abandon during the fight scenes. But his Miles isn't just a brawling lout--Reed gives him some unexpected depth. Miles has come back to England after a long absence as a mercenary only to find his conniving brother (played very well by David Hemmings) has taken over his inheritance and married his true love (Raquel Welch). Welch looks spectacular as always, but she really doesn't have all that much to do in the picture. 

CROSSED SWORDS looks magnificent on this Kino Region A Blu-ray--it's a colorful, clear transfer that shows off Jack Cardiff's talents. The sound is in mono, and there are times where the music comes off louder than the dialogue. 

Among the extras are a new interview with star Mark Lester. He has a number of stories about the production and his co-stars, and, as expected, he has plenty of anecdotes concerning Oliver Reed. An audio commentary prepared for this Blu-ray features Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. The participants are enthusiastic, but they spend a lot of time discussing things other than the movie at hand. 

Kino has also seen fit to include what is described as the "international" version of CROSSED SWORDS, which is a few minutes longer, on this disc. Unfortunately this version is not in HD, and the visual quality is nowhere near as good as the main version. There's not a lot of difference in this international version, other than a few scenes being longer and a bit more plot detail. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how effective CROSSED SWORDS is, considering that it seems to not have much of a reputation. It's a classic historical adventure that can be watched by the entire family, without CGI excess and outlandish editing techniques. It's a great example of good old-fashioned expert storytelling, enlivened by a distinguished cast. I'm glad that Kino has given an unheralded gem like CROSSED SWORDS a major home video release. 



Monday, April 12, 2021

GODZILLA VS. KONG

 


I know what you are thinking--"Dan, there's no way you're going to like this movie. Why even write a blog post on it??" Well, it's what I do. 

The latest installment of the "Monsterverse"--or the "Monarchverse", or whatever you want to call it--pits Godzilla vs. King Kong. But there's a third party that the duo winds up dealing with. Some cult movie geeks might rejoice over this guest star, but that creature's realization here is, in my opinion, just as lacking as that of the main two monsters. 

The other films in this "Monsterverse"--the 2014 GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, didn't impress me very much. What you got in those films--annoying human characters, lame attempts at humor, plenty of CGI battle spectacle--is what you get in GODZILLA VS. KONG. 

The mysterious and ominous Monarch Corporation has trapped King Kong on Skull Island for study. But another ominous corporation called Apex believes that the big ape can lead them to "Hollow Earth", deep under the ground, where all the giant monsters supposedly come from. (The Toho Studios idea that giant monsters were let loose by radiation and the folly of man does not apply here.) Godzilla and Kong somehow sense each other, and commence to brawling. Kong gets put down pretty hard in the first round, but he's able to lead the human characters to Hollow Earth, while Godzilla heads for Hong Kong to destroy Apex's secret weapon. A bunch of CGI destruction follows. 

This is a basically a summer popcorn movie, so one shouldn't take it too seriously. It would be nice, though, if some of the fun and inventiveness of the classic Japanese kaiju movies had been included here. Watching this film I was reminded of several other loud CGI fests, such as PACIFIC RIM, the JURASSIC PARK series, the TRANSFORMERS series, and...there's even a part of Hollow Earth that is reminiscent of LORD OF THE RINGS. 

King Kong is definitely the star of this film, and he looks far better than the 21st Century American Godzilla, who is far too ugly and too lacking in personality for my taste. As for the plot, there's no point in trying to analyze it, or you'll find yourself asking questions such as....why does King Kong wield a Kong-sized radioactive ax? And why does a massive and powerful corporation such as Apex have such weak security that it can be breached by a teenager and her two geeky friends??

GODZILLA VS. KONG does have a couple visual reminders to the 1962 KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Other than that....I'd much rather be watching that 1962 film. 


Saturday, April 3, 2021

WHAT A CARVE UP! (AKA NO PLACE LIKE HOMICIDE!)

 





The 1961 film WHAT A CARVE UP! (released in America as NO PLACE LIKE HOMICIDE!) belongs in a small mini-genre of British thriller spoofs made in the early 1960s. The other titles in this group are the 1962 THE OLD DARK HOUSE (made by Hammer, directed by William Castle) and THE HORROR OF IT ALL (directed by Terence Fisher). All three movies involve comedic leads dealing with a weird family living in a spooky remote old manor house. (CARRY ON SCREAMING could be also included in this group, but the plot of that film is very different.)

CARRY ON veterans Sid James and Kenneth Connor star as two friends who travel to a remote estate for the reading of Connor's late uncle's will. As expected, Connor's relatives are strange or suspicious-acting, and people start turning up dead. 

This movie does have an impressive cast. Donald Pleasence is the family solicitor, and playing family members are Dennis Price and Hammer veterans George Woodbridge and Michael Gwynn. Shirley Eaton provides the eye candy as the late uncle's nurse, and Michael Gough gets the best role as the butler. Gough is made up to look like Lurch from the Addams Family, and he shambles along with a limp and a zombie-like expression. Adam Faith, who was a English pop star at the time, shows up at the end for a cameo. 

One expects some entertainment just from the cast alone, but the script doesn't provide any. The story is made up of the same old dark house cliches most film buffs have seen numerous times. There's sliding panels, bodies appearing (and disappearing) unexpectedly, and characters acting weird just for the sake of it. Kenneth Connor is a cowardly klutz, while Sid James is a bossy smart-aleck. In this film the duo come off like an English Abbott & Costello (although nowhere near as funny or interesting). 

Despite all the various CARRY ON connections here, there's very little bawdy humor (the viewer is, however, treated to the sight of Shirley Eaton in her underwear). The "funny" business that is in this movie could easily be found in any episode of the average American TV sitcom made at the time. 

WHAT A CARVE UP! was produced by Robert Baker & Monty Berman, and this is one of their decidedly lesser efforts. The director of the film was Pat Jackson, who went on to helm a few episodes of the magnificent TV show THE PRISONER. Here Jackson seems ill at ease with comedy--the gags lack rhythm and pace. (The Three Stooges could have gone through all the situations in this movie in fifteen minutes flat.) 

English Gothic fans will want to see WHAT A CARVE UP! just for the cast alone, but the limp material doesn't measure up to the talents involved. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE

 





PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954) is Warner Bros.' 3-D follow up to their hit HOUSE OF WAX. The film is based on Poe's famous tale "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", but, as expected, several liberties are taken with the source material. 

In 1890s Paris, a mysterious fiend is brutally murdering a number of young attractive women. A few clues lead the Inspector on the case (Claude Dauphin) to charge Professor Paul Dupin (Steve Forrest) with the crimes. Dupin, however, is being set up by an associate, Dr. Marais (Karl Malden). Marais is a zoologist and a psychologist, and he has trained a gorilla to kill on his command. The victims had rejected Marais in some way, and the madman has his eyes on Dupin's love (Patricia Medina). The gorilla winds up taking the woman up on the rooftops of Paris, while the police try to track them and Marais down. 

I watched this movie thru my TCM cable app, and, needless to say, it was not in 3-D. Would I have enjoyed it better if it had been? I doubt it, since I'm not much of a 3-D fan. For me, the main interest here was the fact that it was one of the very few Gothic horror tales made by a major American studio in the early 1950s, and in color, no less. 

For a Hollywood movie made in this period, PHANTOM is quite brutal--we even get to see some blood streaks on the bodies of the victims, and the movie leaves no doubt that they have been horribly attacked. Jonathan Rigby has pointed out in his book that this film is a precursor to the much more violent horror thrillers of the 60s and 70s, where gorgeous women were killed in various spectacular and bloody ways. The incident in Poe's story of a woman's corpse being stuffed up a chimney is even used here. (Mario Bava would have had a field day with PHANTOM'S scenario.)

The problem is the story bogs down very quickly with several "police official investigating the murders" scenes that just seem to kill time. There's an attempt to inject some atmosphere with such elements as can-can girls, a knife throwing act, acrobats, and Apache dancers, but you're still never convinced that this is supposed to be Paris. The main reason is that, other than Claude Dauphin, all the other actors come off as non-French as possible. (A very young Merv Griffin, of all people, has a small role here as a Parisian university student.) 

Karl Malden gives a very hammy and nervy performance as Dr. Marais. Malden was a fine character actor, but he's not at all suited to play a Bela Lugosi-John Carradine type of role. Marais has plenty of hangups with the opposite sex, due to his relationship with his late wife. The doctor keeps a mini-shrine to his wife in his house, complete with a large portrait of the woman (which looks just like Patricia Medina). This plot point of a mentally disturbed man obsessed with a dead wife would be used in most of the later Poe adaptations made by American-International Pictures. 

Director Roy Del Ruth (a long-time Warners veteran) uses plenty of 3-D gimmicks, the main one being females in danger screaming at the camera in extreme close-up. Charles Gemora, who played the ape in Universal's 1932 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, does the honors again here. The gorilla suit this time is quite impressive--it's much better looking than the ones used in many 1930s-40s poverty row flicks. The climax of the gorilla making off with Patricia Medina isn't as exciting as it should be, mainly due to the fact that the creature appears to be lugging around a mannequin. 

PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE doesn't have much of a reputation now (Jonathan Rigby is one of the few genre experts who has written about it). It's much darker than HOUSE OF WAX, and it doesn't have a real horror star like Vincent Price. I much prefer the 1932 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and I would even say that AIP's 1971 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is better. 




Saturday, March 27, 2021

ZACH SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE

 


Do we really need a four-hour alternate version of a two-hour comic book movie, that, in my original estimation, was just okay? Well, we have one with ZACH SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE. Thanks to my dear brother Robert, I was able to view this elephantine mass of clickbait. 

I'm not going to go into the background of how and why this film came about--there's plenty of articles on the internet where you can get that info. This Snyder version greatly expands on the theatrical JUSTICE LEAGUE, not necessarily better. 

The Snyder version clears up a lot of loose plot points--for example, it provides a legitimate reason for the heroes to resurrect Superman. But the extra footage also accentuates the original movie's flaws. There's still too many characters, too many subplots...there's so much going on that it's hard to have any emotional connection with anything, or anyone. 

How you feel about this version will really depend on how you feel about Zach Snyder's bombastic, music video-on-steroids directing style. Snyder constantly strains for the "big moment"--but he attempts so many of them here, that by the time the real big moments are supposed to happen, they don't have the expected impact. A little bit of Snyder goes a long way, and this is a long movie. (Snyder also loves slow motion the way Bugs Bunny loves carrots.)

The characterizations in this version haven't been improved, except for Ray Fisher's Cyborg, who winds up being the lead hero. The main villain, Steppenwolf, has been redesigned, but he still comes off as a minor league Thanos, and Darksied's cameo is rather underwhelming. Ezra Miller's Flash gets more chances at comic relief, but it also makes the character more silly. 

This version has a prologue, six parts, and a epilogue, but I don't think that helped the story along any. The epilogue sets up a bizarre alternate storyline that some fanboys want Snyder to go out and make (I say no). It is also is presented in a 4:3 standard aspect ratio, which is quite unusual in this day and age. I'm sure there's plenty of young folks who have never spent four hours in their lives watching something in a non-widescreen format. (It also doesn't do much for the visuals.) 

Is there anything I liked about this Snyder cut?? Well....Superman did have a sharp-looking alternate uniform. 

ZACH SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is certainly not the salvation of the DC cinematic universe (personally, I don't think there even is a DCCU). Like most alternate cuts or versions of films, it has a certain interest, but I don't think it's a great improvement over the theatrical JUSTICE LEAGUE. I also believe it's not worth spending money just to watch it on HBOMax. The truly great DC Comics movie, featuring the company's classic characters, has yet to be made. 



Tuesday, March 23, 2021

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA Novelization

 






I've been a fan of Hammer horror films for a long time....but until recently I had never read any of the various novelizations based on the company's movies. These books were released in the 1960s and 70s, and some of the original paperback copies fetch a high price on the internet. 

A few weeks ago I purchased a reprint of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA novelization. This version was published by Bear Manor Media. It contains the complete original novel, attributed to Dean Owen, and a introduction by Richard A. Ekstedt. Ekstedt explains that Dean Owen was actually a pen name for an American author named Dudley Dean McGaughy, who wrote a number of movie tie-in novels. 

Owen/McGaughy apparently based this novel on an early draft of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA script. (Anyone who is aware of the production history of THE BRIDES OF DRACULA knows how much trouble it took to get to the final storyline.) The novel is very similar storywise to the final film, but there are also a few major differences. 

One major change is that the mysterious character (played by Michael Mulcaster) who hitches a ride on the coach transporting Marianne at the beginning of the movie BRIDES has a more substantial role in the novel. In the book the character is named Latour, and he functions as sort of a sinister thug for the Meinster family. (Latour is to the Meinsters what the character Klove would be to Dracula in later Hammer films featuring the Count.) Dr. Van Helsing also has a helper in the novel, named Jacques. 

Van Helsing also gets to, shall we say, enjoy himself more in the novel. Let me describe a sequence in the book to you. Remember in the film version of BRIDES that Van Helsing first discovered Marianne passed out in the forest after she had ran away from the Chateau Meinster? In the novel, Van Helsing finds her...naked (Baron Meinster was getting ready to attack her, but the sun started to come up). Van Helsing wraps her in his cloak, and starts to carry her off. He then gets into a knock-down brawl with some villagers, finally gets Marianne back to the Running Boar Inn...and then the couple have sex. (How do you think Terence Fisher would have handled all of that??)

The real difference between the BRIDES novel and the BRIDES movie is not so much the plot, it's the tone. The book comes off like a trashy potboiler, due to Dean Owen's mediocre writing style. Consider how the author describes Marianne on the very first page: "The damp cloak could not hide the abundant curve at breast and hip." Owen also finds about a half-dozen more ways to mention Marianne's breasts throughout the story. 

What struck me about this book is, when you take away all the usual Hammer accouterments--the actors, the production design, the costumes, the sets, the cinematography, Terence Fisher's direction--you're left with a vampire story that doesn't exactly jump off the page at you. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is my favorite Hammer horror film, but if I had read this novelization first, without having seen the movie, I probably wouldn't have been that interested in seeing it at all. The film is a magnificent Gothic fairy tale, while the book doesn't come anywhere near that description. 

What made Hammer movies special was definitely on the screen, instead of the page. In this instance the book is certainly not better than the movie. From a long-time Hammer fan's perspective, it's intriguing to read one of these novelizations--it is part of the company's history--but I don't think I'll be going out of my way to gather up a collection of them.