Monday, June 20, 2022

THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU On Blu-ray From Kino

 





Kino has released a true (and rare) treat on Blu-ray--the two Fu Manchu films made by Paramount during the early talkie period. THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1929) and THE RETURN OF FU MANCHU (1930) were both directed by Rowland V. Lee, and Warner Oland plays the nefarious doctor in each. I'll be discussing the first film in this blog post. 

THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU begins in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion in China. The wife and young son of the kindly scientist Dr. Fu Manchu are inadvertently killed by British soldiers during a battle. The grief-stricken Fu Manchu swears revenge on the officers he considers responsible. Nearly 30 years later, in England, the doctor puts his plans in motion, using a beautiful young Caucasian woman (Jean Arthur) to attract the attention of a Dr. Petrie (Neil Hamilton). Petrie's father was one of the British officers Fu Manchu wants to kill. Luckily British Inspector Denis Nayland Smith (O. P. Heggie) is on hand to foil the doctor's evil plans. 

For those that assume THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU is too politically incorrect to be enjoyed today, the movie gives the title character a sympathetic backstory which has nothing to do with anything written by Sax Rohmer in his many Fu Manchu novels. Warner Oland's Fu is different from the one in Rohmer's books. Rohmer's Fu was described as tall and feline (which Oland is decidedly not). The Rohmer Fu is also bent on world conquest, while Oland's Fu is only concerned with getting revenge on those he believes killed his family. THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU certainly doesn't have a 21st Century sensibility when it comes to dealing with Asian characters, but it's nowhere near on the same level as MGM's wild-and-wooly THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, or even some of the 1960s Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee. 

One does have to take into account that this film is a very early talkie, and it is very creaky and stage bound at times. (The most visual exciting sequence is the Boxer Rebellion battle at the beginning of the film.) There are a number of impressive sets here, including some expressionistic recreations of London's Limehouse district, but the production doesn't--or wasn't able to--take full advantage of them. At one point the heroes take refuge in a old castle located on a sea-side cliff, and the domicile reminded me very much of Bela Lugosi's castle in WHITE ZOMBIE. 

Something else that reminded me of WHITE ZOMBIE was Jean Arthur's performance as Lia, the unwitting instrument of Fu Manchu's revenge. When Lia is at the castle, she's hypnotized by Fu, and as she wanders around, dressed in flowing white, she brought to my mind Madge Bellamy in the undead classic. The Jean Arthur in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU is not the independent, spunky Arthur of the mid-1930s. Here she's a wide-eyed naive ingenue, the ultimate damsel in distress. In his biography of the actress, John Oller quoted Arthur as saying her Fu Manchu films "were dreadful". 

Neil Hamilton (who will always be known for playing Commissioner Gordon on the BATMAN TV series) makes a decent romantic hero, although his Dr. Petrie has very little in common with the one featured in the Rohmer novels. O. P. Heggie (best known as the blind hermit in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) plays Nayland Smith very much as Rohmer wrote him--steadfast, determined, and to the point. One of the detriments of the film is the very annoying "comic" relief by William Austin as a prissy, weak-kneed servant of the Petrie family (one spends the entire film wishing Fu would kill off this guy quick.) 

For several years the Paramount Fu Manchu films were unavailable to the public. Both of the films make their official home video debut on one Region A disc. THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU is presented in a 1.20:1 aspect ratio. Kino states that the print used is from a new 2K master, and the black & white film looks very good for being made over 90 years ago. The sound quality is not great--but this is a very early sound film. There are times when the dialogue is not very distinct--obviously sound mixing and editing was in its infancy then. 

The main extra for this film is a new audio commentary by Tim Lucas. As expected, it's an excellent one, with Lucas giving out relevant info on Sax Rohmer and the Fu Manchu character. He also discusses the production history of the film, and how it falls in between the silent era and the time when Hollywood was fully proficient in working with sound. A few trailers from other early sound films released by Kino are also included. 

THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU will be more appreciated by film buffs and those who have actually read the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels (I belong to both categories). No matter what one thinks of the film, Kino deserves all the compliments they can get for putting it out on Blu-ray. I'll be reviewing THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU on a future blog post. 



Saturday, June 18, 2022

UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE On Blu-ray From Severin

 






Included in Severin's THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE COLLECTION 2 Blu-ray box set is the 1959 Italian horror spoof TEMPI DURI PER I VAMPIRI, known in English-speaking countries as UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE. 

I wrote a blog post on this movie a few years ago (dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2017/04/uncle-was-vampire.html). It's not a wild knockabout farce--it's a lighthearted, leisurely paced story in which Lee has a supporting role to short, pudgy Italian comic Renato Rascel. It will be a revelation to Lee fans who have not seen it. Lee plays his role in a non-comedic manner, and some of the individual shots of him in this film are just about as atmospheric as any in the Hammer Dracula series. Lee here looks very much like he did in DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and many of the facial and physical mannerisms he uses would crop up again in his future performances as the Count.  

UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE has never had an official U.S. home video release until now. (This Blu-ray is listed for Regions A,B, and C.) The disc case claims that the uncut theatrical version presented on this Blu-ray has been scanned in 2K from the dupe negative. The aspect ratio is 2:35.1. 

I have to say that the visual quality of this print looks soft and faded--the color is not very vibrant--and the picture is a bit jittery at times (before the start of the film there's an onscreen text from Severin saying that the print has stability issues). The movie doesn't look all that much better than the version of it I watched on YouTube. One has to assume that this was the best print Severin could obtain. This version has the Italian soundtrack and credits, with English subtitles provided. 

This disc also has a alternate Italian TV version of UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, which is not in HD but is in widescreen. The picture quality on this is mediocre, and it's also about five minutes shorter than the theatrical version. The TV version does have a brand new commentary with Lee biographer Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons. The duo are fans of UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, and they give out detail on the mostly Italian cast & crew, and they also discuss how influential HORROR OF DRACULA was on the production. 

A short featuette is also included, entitled COMMEDIA DRACULA ALL'ITALIANA, with Euro film historian Pasquale Iannone. He discusses the making of the film, and the program has a number of behind the scenes photos. 

It's nice that UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE has finally gotten a major home video release for English-speaking audiences, along with some fine extras. The movie itself is more silly than funny, but it did give Lee a chance to play an actual vampire who wasn't Dracula--and he didn't have to appear foolish to do so. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS

 






There's always been a fascination over terrible films. Whether it's a no-budget turkey with no proficient technical values whatsoever, or a major-budget blockbuster disaster, the stories behind the making of lousy movies are often times more compelling than watching a well-made cinematic story. THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS details a extremely troubled production made in 1973 called GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, directed by Peter Medak. What makes this documentary different is that instead of an outsider examining the failed film, it's Medak himself who presents what went wrong. (I viewed this film on the Tubi streaming channel.)

In 1972 Peter Medak was receiving international acclaim for having directed the dark social satire THE RULING CLASS. Peter Sellers convinced Medak to direct the actor's next film, a comedy about 17th Century pirates written by Spike Milligan. Medak had concerns about the script, but, needing money, he felt he couldn't turn down the chance to work with two comic legends. The result was a nightmare that Medak had no way of anticipating. 

Filming took place in Cyprus, and the production was immediately beset with one problem after another. The refurbished boat used as the pirate ship kept breaking down, the weather didn't cooperate, and the budget started going up and up. But the worst problem of all was Peter Sellers, who went out of his way to sabotage the production, while exasperating the entire cast & crew--Medak in particular. 

Medak goes over all the various crises in this 2018 documentary, while revisiting the shooting locations, and talking to surviving crew members. Medak also chats with friends and associates of both Sellers and Milligan. 

Medak also does a lot of self-examination here, trying to look back and find out what went wrong, and if he could have handled things differently. Considering all that happened during the making of the film, it's amazing that it even got finished. Medak relates that no matter what, he was determined to see the movie through--if he hadn't, no one would have gotten paid, and he would have been blamed for it all. 

Columbia Pictures felt that the final cut of GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN was so bad that it couldn't be released. (There's plenty of scenes from the film in this documentary, and it truly is a mess.) It didn't totally ruin Medak's career--he went on to direct several major films and episodes of numerous TV series--but what happened during the making of it affected him for the rest of his life, so much so that he made this documentary to try and get some closure on the experience. 

There's plenty of gossipy stories in THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS, especially concerning Sellers himself. But there's more here than just tabloid fodder. An undercurrent of sadness runs throughout. The Hungarian-born Medak (whose family suffered at the hands of both the Nazis and the Soviets) couldn't just file away what happened on GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN as simply a bad experience. Medak passionately explains that any creative individual puts their heart and soul behind any project--no one sets out to make a lousy picture. THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS isn't so much about a bad movie as it is about an artist trying to come to terms with his past. 

After viewing THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS, I came to the conclusion that Peter Mendak couldn't have done anything to change the train-wreck that was GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN--especially when the film revolved around someone as highly talented and highly dysfunctional as Peter Sellers. This is an intriguing, if at times depressing, documentary. 


Friday, June 10, 2022

THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID On Blu-ray From Severin

 





The first Blu-ray from Severin's THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE COLLECTION 2 box set I will examine is 1961's THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID (original German title DAS RATSEL DER ROTEN ORCHIDEE). 

This film is part of the long-running series of krimi movies based on the works of British writer Edgar Wallace, that were made in Germany by the Rialto production company. Christopher Lee had already made his Rialto krimi debut not long before in THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL, in which he played a Chinese detective--and spoke in German with a Chinese accent! In THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID Lee plays a FBI agent from Chicago named Captain Allerman, who is on the trail of multiple American gangsters who have set up extortion operations in London. 

Most of the Rialto krimi entries are wild combinations of such elements as sci-fi, Gothic horror, spy thriller, crime drama, and film noir. THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID is somewhat tamer than the usual krimi--even the exotic and alluring Marisa Mell (DANGER: DIABOLIK) is given a bland role as the lady in distress. 

I'm sure Lee enjoyed the chance to play a "good guy" like Allerman, who engages in gun battles and physical altercations with the transplanted gangsters. According to multiple sources, Lee didn't enjoy working with the film's Austrian director, Helmuth Ashley (Lee thought the man was an autocrat). Lee doesn't even get the lead good guy role in this film--that goes to Adrian Hoven, who plays an Inspector from Scotland Yard. 

The other notable name involved in THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID is the inimitable Klaus Kinski, who plays one of the main gangsters (no surprise there). It's hard to believe that Kinski's character, "Pretty Boy Steve", could successfully keep up a cover as a London shopkeeper, but the actor, as always, brings a quirky charge every time he is on the screen. 

Mention must also be made of the music score of this film, by Peter Thomas. It definitely draws your attention--it times too much attention. Thomas' future krimi scores would get even stranger. 

THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID is a decent krimi film, with a convoluted plot that doesn't have a lot of mystery to it (the main bad guy is easy to figure out). It's nice to see Lee play a "normal" person on the side of law and order, and it must be said that he handles himself quite well here. (He also speaks his lines in German on the original dialogue track, and he's totally at ease in doing so.) 

Severin presents THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID in a 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with German and English dialogue tracks, with available English subtitles. (Needless to say, the original German voice track fits the film far better than the English one.) The visual quality of this black & white film is very sharp on this disc. The presentation is a substantial improvement from Retromedia's DVD of the film, which was in full frame and only featured the English dialogue track. 

Two excellent commentaries are on this disc. One features Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth, and they provide a lively discussion that gives out plenty of much-needed info on the Rialto krimi series in particular, along with side talks about Lee, Kinski, and most of the cast & crew. The other commentary has Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw, and they focus on Edgar Wallace's writing career and style, and how it affected the krimi series overall. Both talks are well worth listening to, especially for those that want more info on the weird world of krimi cinema. The German trailer for the film is also included. 

I'm not sure about this, but Severin's Blu-ray of THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID may be the first time that any of the Rialto krimi films have been given a deluxe Region A HD release. Hopefully there's more krimis in Severin's future. Christopher Lee fans will appreciate seeing him playing an action hero, and the film itself is a nice introduction to the Rialto krimi series for those who have not ventured into that realm. 



Tuesday, June 7, 2022

THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE COLLECTION 2 On Blu-ray From Severin

 






Last year Severin's THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE Blu-ray box set was my pick for home video release of the year. The company is back with THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE 2, a seven-disc collection containing six rare films featuring Lee. (This set is not available yet for general release, but I received it early due to my ordering it direct from Severin.) 

The films are UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, THE SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID, DARK PLACES, MURDER STORY, and DRACULA AND SON. The disc for MURDER STORY also includes a bonus film with Lee, MASK OF MURDER. DRACULA AND SON has three discs: the original director's cut, the American theatrical version, and a CD of the movie's music score. 

Each movie has an audio commentary (a few have more than one), and various other extras. Each film also gets its own case, with a special cover design. 

Just like the first Eurocrypt collection, this one also has a 100 page booklet written by Lee biographer and English-Euro Gothic expert Jonathan Rigby, which I have already read. If you are wondering what more Rigby can say about Lee and his films (especially to the actor's hardcore fans), don't worry. Rigby is still able to come up with new angles and perspectives on Lee's acting career and the man's personality. The title of the booklet is "Christopher Lee--A Career In Six Snapshots". Rigby examines Lee's life and acting persona at six different times--or "snapshots"--throughout the years. Rigby's views, and his standout analysis, are always informative and interesting to read, and the booklet is enlivened by several stills, many of which I have never seen before. 





I've noticed that there has been a few complaints on the internet about the films included in this set. First of all, one has to realize that a company like Severin can't just pick and choose at random what movies they can release. I'm also sure that Lee's filmography--which encompasses hundreds and hundreds of films, many of them quite obscure--has all sorts of various rights issues attached to it. Most of the better known films Lee appeared in have received plenty of attention on home video. I would much rather have rare films that I do not have much knowledge of get home video debuts, even if they are not the greatest movies in the world.

If I have a quibble with any of the selections for this second Eurocrypt, it would be DARK PLACES. I assumed that Eurocrypt meant films made in continental Europe--but DARK PLACES was made in England, and Lee just has a supporting role in it. It's also not very notable (I wrote a blog post on it not that long ago). 

Nevertheless, this is a great set to have, and it will take me a while to delve into all of it. Like the first Eurocrypt collection, I'll be doing blog posts on some of the individual films in the set. 

I didn't expect Severin to even come up with a second Christopher Lee Eurocrypt set. So the question has to be asked--will there be a Eurocrypt 3?? There's still plenty of films that Lee appeared in that would fit the parameters of such a collection, and the fact that Severin included an English film in the second set really opens up the field. For now let's just enjoy this current set, and appreciate the fact that Severin is still making product like this. 




Sunday, June 5, 2022

SATURNALIA

 



SATURNALIA is writer-producer-director-star Joshua Kennedy's wildest, most off-beat film yet....and that's saying something. 

Because it's so wild and off-beat, and because it touches upon so many genres, it's almost impossible to describe. The main point is that the film is exceedingly fun to watch, due to the fact that it is filled with the mad exuberance that has come to define the Gooey Cinematic Universe. 

SATURNALIA features Josh Kennedy as the nebbishy Melvin Kolbaba, a mediocre pizza delivery guy. The most important thing in Melvin's geeky life is the comic strip he has created about a character called Saturnalia, who is a shapely cavegirl from outer space. One night Melvin has to make a delivery to a top-secret research facility, and he stumbles upon a machine that can replicate matter. Melvin steals the device, and accidentally brings Saturnalia to life. While Melvin tries to figure out what to do with the now-real amorous Amazon, he goes on the run for stealing the replicator, and he becomes the main suspect in the murders of a number of fashion models. 

SATURNALIA has a wacky energy that never lets up, along with enough plot for about three different movies. Longtime Joshua Kennedy fans will recognize several familiar faces from the Gooey Films Stock Company among the supporting cast, and they will also note the obligatory shower scene, along with several references to Medusa. 

Dani Thompson gets a magnificent showcase as Saturnalia. She communicates through comic book-like dialogue balloons (a neatly realized effect), and she has more than enough screen presence to come off as a galactic superhero. Thompson also gets to play Saturnalia's evil twin sister Ilsa, who has been brought to life by Melvin as well. This allows Thompson to literally fight herself in an action sequence, and square off against Ilsa's aptly named henchman Igor, played by Julian Flores. 



Poster artwork by Mark Maddox

SATURNALIA also has a voice cameo from Josh's original muse, Martine Beswicke, and a vibrant score from Reber Clark that keeps up with the film's many wild transitions (no small feat). There's even a title song, performed by Laura Laureano, that perfectly matches the overall tone of the proceedings. As expected there's plenty of classic film references--the viewer will be reminded of such luminaries as Hitchcock, Mel Brooks, and Kubrick. 

The film has more animated effects than is usual in a Gooey production, and it's one of the better looking--and better sounding--tales directed by Kennedy. 

The best way to appreciate a film like SATURNALIA is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Don't worry about plot details, or whether anything makes any sense or not. Thankfully there's no presumed social significance injected here, or reminders of current real world events. 

SATURNALIA is outrageous, ridiculous, and at times, hilarious. It also has more inventiveness to it than the usual recent prefabricated big-budget comic book blockbusters. Simply put, SATURNALIA is a hell of a good time. 


Saturday, June 4, 2022

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD

 







THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD is a 1936 light-comedy/mystery film from RKO, starring William Powell and Jean Arthur (pictured above). 

By the time this film was made, William Powell had plenty of experience in the lighthearted mystery genre, having already played Nick Charles, Philo Vance, and many other lawyers and detectives. The twist in THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD is that Powell's character, surgeon Dr. Lawrence Bradford, is not a mystery buff. The person who is mad about solving crimes here is Bradford's rich and daffy ex-wife Paula (Jean Arthur). 

A jockey dies while riding a favored horse in an important race. The horse's trainer and the ex-Mrs. Bradford are convinced it's murder, and they convince Dr. Bradford to look into the affair. After the trainer is found dead at Bradford's swanky apartment, the doctor himself becomes a suspect. Bradford sleuths out the culprit, with the help (and hindrance) of Paula. 

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD may not be a spectacular film, but it is well-made and enjoyable. The ultra-smooth Powell successfully co-starred with just about every notable leading lady of 1930s Hollywood, so it's no surprise that he and Jean Arthur are a delight together. Arthur is a tad more dizzier in this movie than usual, but she's also more glamorous as well, with a high-class wardrobe. Eric Blore (as one would expect) is Dr. Bradford's butler, James Gleason plays a hard-boiled police inspector, and among the suspects are such character actors as Robert Armstrong, Ralph Morgan, and Grant Mitchell. 

The method behind the murders is inventively unusual, and the story is opened up with a sequence at an actual horse racetrack. The typical "gather all the suspects in a room so the murderer can be revealed" climax is given some spice by having Bradford show the assembled group newsreel footage taken at the racetrack, showing the killer at work. 

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD was directed by Stephen Roberts. This was his last film--sadly he died of a heart attack (at only 41 years of age) in 1936. Because of his early death Roberts is almost unknown today, but he also directed one of the wildest Pre-Code movies, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE. 

Seeing such light comedy masters as William Powell, Jean Arthur, and Eric Blore at work is one main reason to watch THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD. The movie is a great example of how fine and efficient the 1930s Hollywood studio system could be.