Sunday, September 26, 2021

ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU On Blu-ray From Arrow

 





Another movie from the COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN Blu-ray set from Arrow Video. This one is ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, a 1957 tale of the walking dead directed by Edward Cahn. 

Somewhere off the coast of Africa, a group of treasure hunters searches for a safe filled with diamonds that went down with a ship over a half-century before. The members of that ship's crew have been cursed to remain in an undead state and protect the loot. Various groups have been trying to grab the diamonds for years, only to wind up dead. One of the latest treasure hunters (Gregg Palmer) must decide between greed or the lives of his companions. 

ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU is the outlier in this set in that it is not a science-fiction story. The zombies featured here have not been reanimated by scientific means, as in CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN. But there's nothing particularly atmospheric about this undead crew. They do not have gruesome make-ups, and they don't go on gory rampages. They're basically pudgy middle-aged white men who stagger about in a daze. They do have the ability to fight underwater, but for the most part, this film moves as slow as the zombies do. 

The entire movie lacks atmosphere as well. Despite the African setting, there are no black characters whatsoever (the story could have easily been set in Florida with no changes to it). The treasure hunters are an argumentative, unlikable lot, and they're not all that smart either. 

Cult movie legend Allison Hayes easily makes the biggest mark as the shrewish wife of the captain of the treasure hunters' boat. It's another of Hayes' roles where she plays a caustic, conniving, and flirty woman, but she does give the movie what little spark it has. Towards the end Hayes gets turned into a zombie, and she's held at bay by candles instead of crosses (the zombies here can't stand light or fire). Autumn Russell (who is quite attractive herself) plays the blonde nice girl equivalent to Hayes. Fifties sci-fi veteran Morris Ankrum appears in a civilian role (it's strange to see him not wearing a military uniform). 



Allison Hayes in a publicity still for ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU

Arrow presents ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (the movie is in black & white). The extras include a introduction by Kim Newman, who discusses how elements of the film made their way into more famous zombie flicks made in the latter part of the 20th Century. A featurette titled "Atomic Terror: Genre In Transformation", has Josh Hurtado talk about how the four films in this Katzman set mixed 1950s science with classic horror film tropes. Kat Ellinger contributes a rather dry audio commentary. There's also an original trailer and a image gallery. 

The script of ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU has some intriguing ideas, but the final product doesn't make the best use of them. A director such as Roger Corman might have given this story some extra juice. 


Saturday, September 25, 2021

CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN On Blu-ray From Arrow

 





The first film included in Arrow's COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN Blu-ray box set that I will be writing a blog post on is CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955).

Mr. Evelyn Ankers, aka Richard Denning, stars as Chet Walker, the head of a police lab in a large U.S. city. Walker investigates a series of strange and brutal slayings, and discovers that the man behind it is a crime boss with the overtly ordinary name of Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger). Buchanan had been deported, and while in Europe he came across German scientist Dr. Steigg (Gregory Gaye). The gangster funded the doctor's experiments with brain control, and the result is a mini-army of reanimated dead, who Buchanan uses to kill his enemies. 

CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN is a bit different than the usual 1950s sci-fi B picture, with a mob boss as the main villain, non-supernatural zombies, and a hero who is both a law officer and a scientist. The film was written by genre specialist Curt Siodmak, and he gives the story some unique angles. Chet Walker's home and Frank Buchanan's hideout are both in the suburbs, which gives the sense that ordinary America is under attack. Underlying this element is a sequence where Walker's cop buddy (S. John Launer) is turned into a zombie. The former best friend turned threat then becomes a menace to Walker's wife and little girl. 

This is one of Edward L. Cahn's better directorial efforts, with a climax involving a group of zombies, cops, and soldiers battling it out on the front lawn of Buchanan's hideout. Richard Denning does the film very well with his down-to-earth but determined portrayal of Chet Walker. The quick running time (only 69 minutes) keeps the audience from wondering too much about the crazy plot details. 

All the films in this Arrow set have a number of fine extras. CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN has an introduction with genre expert Kim Newman, who discusses how the movie mixed a classic-type monster such as the zombie with nuclear science. A brand new audio commentary features Russell Dyball, who admires the film and gives out plenty of info and analysis on it. There's a Super 8mm version of the movie included, and a trailer and stills gallery. 

The main extra is a full-length feature program on the life and work of Sam Katzman by Stephen Bissette. It feels almost like a Zoom presentation, but it is very well done, with Bissette narrating a mini-bio of Katzman while different stills and promotional materials from the producer's movies are shown on the screen. 

The disc cover sleeve is reversible, and I prefer the original advertising artwork (as shown above). The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and both picture (it is in black & white) and sound are crisp and sharp. 

I had actually seen CREATURE FROM THE ATOM BRAIN for the first time a few months ago courtesy of Svengoolie on his MeTV program. It's not a superb work of art, but it does what it was made to do: give the viewer a little over an hour of unusual entertainment. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

CRY MACHO

 





The most important thing about CRY MACHO is that a 90-year old Clint Eastwood produced, directed, and starred in a major studio motion picture during a very complicated time in America. That fact is a testament to Eastwood's work ethic and no-nonsense attitude. 

As for the movie itself, it's a simple tale, with a leisurely pace and attitude. In 1980, elderly ranch hand Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood) is asked by his former boss (Dwight Yoakam) to bring back the man's estranged son from Mexico. The young teenager (Eduardo Minett) is involved in a dysfunctional situation, and Mike and the boy begin to bond as they slowly make they way back to the United States. 

There's nothing extraordinary or surprising about CRY MACHO. The story is quite familiar, and Eastwood fans will be reminded of THE MULE and GRAND TORINO (screenwriter Nick Schenk worked on those two films along with CRY MACHO). There's also elements from TROUBLE WITH CURVE and MILLION DOLLAR BABY. The plot of an older crotchety white guy bonding with a younger rebellious person is one that Eastwood has gotten a lot of use out of--heck, he was using it nearly 40 years ago with HONKYTONK MAN. 

What makes the movie work is Eastwood's understated directorial (and acting) style. He doesn't care about flashy editing or CGI tricks. Eastwood lets the story flow naturally, and the actors be themselves. He also lets Ben Davis'  classic-looking cinematography say more than dialogue or quick cuts. 

CRY MACHO isn't a over-the-top, two-hour plus franchise film--but that's what makes it so refreshing. You know what you are going to get with this movie....and what you get is a cultural icon that is still able to fulfill his fans' expectations. While watching CRY MACHO, I realized that Clint Eastwood has appeared on the big screen in EIGHT different decades. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN On Blu-ray From Arrow

 





Arrow Video does it again with another amazing Blu-ray box set to warm the hearts of cult movie geeks. COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN features a quartet of low-budget genre films produced by B-movie maven Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures in the mid 1950s. 

The movies are CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN, THE WEREWOLF, ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU, and THE GIANT CLAW. Each film gets its own disc case, with reversible cover artwork. Each film gets plenty of extras on the individual discs as well. 





Included in each disc case are three mini-lobby cards for each movie. 





There's also two reversible mini-posters with the set. 





And....if that isn't enough....there are two different booklets included in the set. There's an 80-page booklet which features poster artwork and stills from each film, and the other is 60 pages, and it has essays on each title and a short career bio of Sam Katzman. 

Now...are these films worthy of such deluxe treatment?? Well, I wouldn't call any of them great--collectively they are more interesting than even good. But it's wonderful to know that Arrow has put so much effort into this set, with these types of films, especially with all the "physical media is dying" noise going on. 

Eventually I will be writing blog posts on each individual disc. But meanwhile I'll be having a fine time going through all the various elements involved in this set. Keep it up, Arrow!!


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

BLIND CORNER (AKA MAN IN THE DARK)

 


BLIND CORNER is a very effective 1964 British black & white suspense drama with a cast that includes some names familiar to film geeks--William Sylvester (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), Barbara Shelley (THE GORGON), and Elizabeth Shepherd (THE TOMB OF LIGEIA). The film was released in the United States under the title MAN IN THE DARK.

Paul Gregory (William Sylvester) is an accomplished pianist and successful pop composer. He's also blind, due to an accident a few years ago. Paul's wife Anne (Barbara Shelley) puts on a facade of being a loving and supporting spouse, but she's tired of dealing with Paul and his affliction. Anne has been having an affair with Ricky (Alex Davion), a struggling artist, while making Paul think that Ricky is just painting her portrait. Anne knows if she leaves Paul, she won't get any of his money.....so she tries to convince Ricky that Paul could be easily gotten out of the way. Paul, however, knows far more about what's going on around him than Anne thinks. 

BLIND CORNER doesn't have a big budget, and it's not very flashy. Most of the story takes place in Paul's upper-story flat. Despite all this, the movie comes off very well, due to the cast and the script. 

William Sylvester has a reputation for--how shall I put this?--being somewhat bland as an actor. This blandness happens to be a plus in BLIND CORNER. Paul Gregory seems ordinary, he's blind, and he's drinks a bit as well. Because of all this, he seems an easy mark for the duplicitous Anne. But Paul "sees" more than the rest of the other characters do, and he's able to use his detriments and turn them into strengths. Everyone around him appears to take Paul for granted, and he uses this to his advantage. 

I've always though that out of all the leading ladies of Hammer Films, Barbara Shelley had the best overall acting ability. She certainly gets a chance to show it here. Her Anne is devious, cunning, and sexy. (At one point Paul, Anne, and Ricky are in the same room together, and Anne can't keep her hands off of Ricky. Shelley ably shows that Anne is turned on by being able to cheat on her blind husband while he's literally standing in front of her.) Most actresses would play the role of Anne very broadly, but Shelley makes the character real, which makes her all the more threatening. A twist that comes very late in the film reveals that Anne is even more devious than the viewer already knows. 



Barbara Shelley and William Sylvester in BLIND CORNER

Alex Davion is fine in the role of fall guy Ricky, and Mark Eden plays Paul's friend and manager Mike. Elizabeth Shepherd plays Paul's loyal secretary, who has a crush on him (she's the "nice girl" opposite of Anne).

The strange thing about BLIND CORNER is that it has two song sequences. Both songs are sung by Ronnie Carroll, who was a British pop star of the time (I have to admit I had never heard of him). The songs are supposed to be representations of Paul's composing skills, but honestly if they had not been included in the film it wouldn't have made any difference in the story. 

BLIND CORNER was directed by Lance Comfort, who, despite the budgetary and setting limitations, makes the story suspenseful and engaging. (Comfort and William Sylvester would be reunited in the modern English Gothic film DEVILS OF DARKNESS). 

If BLIND CORNER had bigger names involved in front of and behind the camera, it would be more well-known--but the low-key aspects of the production are, in my opinion, what makes it work. The movie is also a superb example of Barbara Shelley's talent. 




Sunday, September 12, 2021

THE BLACK GLOVE (AKA FACE THE MUSIC)

 





This is another early 1950s Hammer film directed by Terence Fisher. THE BLACK GLOVE was the American title of the film, and the title of the version I saw on the Tubi streaming channel. The British title, FACE THE MUSIC, is far more appropriate. 

Alex Nicol is the imported American star this time for Hammer. He plays James Bradley, a trumpeter and bandleader playing a stint in London. After a show Bradley makes the acquaintance of a nightclub singer named Maxine (Ann Hanslip). Bradley has a meal at Ann's flat, then goes back to his hotel room for some much needed rest. He wakes up in the morning to find out that Ann has been murdered, and since he left his trumpet in her flat, he's become a prime suspect. Bradley decides to try and find the killer on his own, and his investigations lead him to a few shady characters. 

THE BLACK GLOVE (released in 1954) has more music than action scenes. At least the music (in the horn-heavy big-band style of the period) is very good, with trumpeter Kenny Baker doubling for Nicol on the soundtrack. (Producer Michael Carreras was a big jazz fan and even has a cameo in the film as a band member.) 

The use of music does make this movie stand out from the many other low-budget crime stories made by Hammer in the early Fifties. What it doesn't do is make the story's murder mystery any more thrilling. Alex Nicol's Bradley is a murder suspect, but he's not desperately on the run. He's also not a broken-down musician--he's famous and successful, headlining a show at the London Palladium. Alex Nicol plays Bradley in a somewhat breezy manner, negating the suspense the movie tries to have. 

Terence Fisher tries at times to inject some seedy atmosphere in the tale, but the story isn't hard-boiled enough, despite Nicol at times narrating the film like a noir anti-hero. The climax is like the final chapter of an Agatha Christie novel, with Bradley in a room with all the various suspects. The trumpeter then shows some amazing deductive ability by revealing who the killer is and what all the suspects have to hide. After seeing this sequence one wonders why Bradley doesn't put down his trumpet and put on a deerstalker. 

Eleanor Summerfield, who was in a number of Terence Fisher-directed films around this time, plays Maxine's sister. Geoffrey Keen. best known for playing a number of haughty British characters, has a very atypical (for him) role here. Hammer fans will recognize Fred Johnson (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA) as a police inspector and Melvyn Hayes, who was the young Baron in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo as a bellhop. 

Americans must have felt from the poster above that THE BLACK GLOVE was a hard-edged crime thriller. It's not...it's more of a few strange days in the life of a popular bandleader. 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

DUNE (1984)

 





Arrow Video has released a new Blu-ray special edition of the notorious 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel DUNE. That is the impetus for this post. 

There are plenty of people who hate DUNE. Most folks consider it to be too weird, or incomprehensible. (Ironically, hardcore fans of DUNE's director, David Lynch, consider the film too mainstream.) The paperback version of DUNE that I own runs over 800 pages. Frank Herbert's epic story is complex and not an easy read. Herbert presents a number of ideas and concepts that are near-impossible to translate into a visual form. 

DUNE, the novel, is also about as far away from the mainstream as you can get. It is not a simple "good guys vs. bad guys in outer space" story. The lead character of DUNE, Paul Atreides, is decidedly not Luke Skywalker (if anything, he's more like Anakin Skywalker). 

Nevertheless, Universal Pictures and executive producer Dino De Laurentiis felt that they had a Star Wars-type property on their hands, a property that could bring in tons of money through merchandising and sequels. A massive amount of money was poured into the project, and a promising young filmmaker named David Lynch was hired to write and direct. The movie was given a huge publicity campaign before its release during the Christmas holiday season of 1984. 

The result is well known--the film was looked upon as a major disappointment financially and critically, and it is still considered as such today. 

Like most famous flops, the '84 DUNE does have a small core of defenders. I certainly don't think it's an underrated masterpiece, but I've grown to appreciate some of its elements over the years. 

I didn't see DUNE during its original theatrical release. I read the novel before I saw the movie as a VHS rental. I could immediately see why it flopped. 

The '84 DUNE had a torturous production history (which I won't get into here). The version of the film that was released was not what either Universal, the De Laurentiis family, or David Lynch wanted. Some have said that DUNE is a 137-minute trailer for a bigger film, which is a very perceptive description. Trying to fit such a large canvas as DUNE into a two-hour running time does not do the story justice. The theatrical release version of the film does not have enough space to adequately inform the audience about what is going on. 

Universal promoted DUNE as a big-budget mainstream spectacular, but most of the people they were trying to sell the film to had never read the novel, and thus they were hopelessly lost when seeing it. (Even those who have read the novel, such as myself, get confused at times while watching DUNE.) 

None of the characters in the film are the types that will connect with a regular audience. Even the main hero, Paul, as played by Kyle MacLachlan, comes off as stiff and distant. (This was MacLachlan's first movie role, but it's not his fault, due to the circumstances and the type of story being told.) Almost every single line of dialogue in DUNE is expository--people don't have real conversations here. That doesn't help an audience in trying to get to know the characters. 

A number of these characters are introduced, and they are seemingly set up for an important role to play--but then they disappear for large stretches of the film, or they get killed off rather quickly. The villains of the piece, the Harkonnens and their associates, are presented in such an over the top manner that they become silly instead of a viable threat. The '84 DUNE also has no humor whatsoever (although there are plenty of unintentionally funny moments). 

A few years after its theatrical release, Universal put together a extended cut of DUNE for television. This version runs about three hours, and it was released on DVD in 2005. This is not the definitive version of the film--David Lynch refused to have anything to do with it, and this cut has plenty of problems of its own. To this day, rumors abound over a four hour-plus cut that supposedly was David Lynch's "real" version of the film (producer Raffaella De Laurentiis denies that any such edit of DUNE exists). Lynch now refuses to even discuss DUNE, and we will never truly know what the 1984 DUNE might have been. 

The more I saw of DUNE over the years, the more I started to look at it from a different angle (especially after I was able to see it in widescreen). It is a strange film, to be sure, and it is not a satisfying adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel. 

I do feel, though, that the weirdness of Lynch's DUNE is one of its stronger aspects. This is a real science-fiction film--not a cop movie, Western, or buddy story set in outer space or in the future. Science fiction isn't supposed to normal. The '84 DUNE truly has an alien and unique visual aspect to it. 

One of the reasons DUNE has such a notable look, I think, is that it was not filmed at Pinewood or Elstree in England, as many big-budget genre films were in the 1980s. It was filmed in Mexico, and the production did not use Industrial Light & Magic for any of the FX work. Most science-fiction movies made since the first Star Wars trilogy have a generic look & style to them (and that has carried on to the many comic book films made now). The '84 DUNE, for better or worse, stands out. 

The production design, special effects, and costumes for DUNE are excellent, as is the cinematography of Freddie Francis (one of David Lynch's greatest collaborators and steadfast supporters). The overall look of DUNE has always fascinated me. The visual aspects of any film are always important to me--it's why I love the original STAR WARS and Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS so much. (METROPOLIS and the '84 DUNE actually have a lot in common.) 

DUNE also has one of the best cast ensembles ever. You may not understand who the characters are, or what they are doing, but the actors hold your attention. 

The 1984 DUNE may be what many have called a fascinating failure, but I find it to be far more watchable than a number of more popular genre films made around the same time. (It does have to be said that the author of this blog is a bit weird himself.) 

In 2000 the Sci-Fi Channel presented a TV miniseries adaptation of DUNE. This version had the advantage of a far longer running time and a more expansive script--but I felt that the cast and the production design were underwhelming (as a matter of fact I barely remember anything about it). If you could somehow merge the script and the running time of the Sci-Fi Channel DUNE with the cast & technical crew of the 1984 DUNE, you might have something. 

But then again, you might not. Can any movie or TV production come anywhere near to properly adapting Frank Herbert's elephantine novel?? A lot of hopes are being pinned on Denis Villeneuve's version of DUNE, which is supposed to be released soon. Villeneuve is planning on a multi-film approach to the story, which may be best. 

If you are someone who believes that MEN IN BLACK is a classic science-fiction film, you are not going to like the 1984 DUNE. If however, you are someone that is willing to get off the mainstream train every once in a while, and is willing to experience serious science-fiction, you might find that DUNE isn't the horrible bomb that so many have labeled it to be.