Friday, September 25, 2020

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

 




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Dr. Who Films On Blu-ray From Kino

 




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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, September 20, 2020

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD

 






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Tuesday, September 15, 2020

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









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

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

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

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

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

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




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




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




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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, September 12, 2020

ROUGH RIDERS








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 6, 2020

More Of My Favorite Movie Cast Ensembles




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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 5, 2020

NUMBER ONE





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

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

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

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




Archie Manning? Drew Brees? No, Charlton Heston


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

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

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

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