Monday, December 31, 2012

I've Got Spurs That Jingle Jingle Django

There's been a lot of people saying that Quentin Tarantino's new film, DJANGO UNCHAINED, is his attempt at a "Spaghetti Western". But when you think about it, every film that Tarantino has ever made is a spaghetti western. All the elements of the genre--the quirky & quotable dialogue, the larger-than-life characters, the over-the-top acting, and the exaggerated camera set-ups--are a huge part of Tarantino's cinematic world. He isn't doing anything different in DJANGO than he does in his other films, other than some of the characters ride horses.

It won't be a surprise to people that DJANGO is exceedingly violent and filled with crude language. It's also, in this blogger's opinion, very well made and very entertaining. Whether you like Tarantino or not, you have to admit the man puts on a show. He has a style and panache that millions of dollars worth of CGI can't match.

Jamie Foxx is surprisingly good in the title role, but this film is stolen by Christoph Waltz. Just like he did in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Waltz dominates every scene he's in. If there was any actor born to be in a Tarantino movie, it's Christoph Waltz. This is going to sound crazy, but Waltz reminds me of....Bela Lugosi. Just like Lugosi, Waltz has an off-center accent which enables him to take the most innocuous line of dialogue and make it sound like it has some grim portent. As Sidney Fox said of Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, Waltz is a show in himself.

As is typical in Tarantino's films, the rest of the cast is pretty eclectic: Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Lee Horsley, Jonah Hill (in a totally pointless cameo), and the original Django himself, Franco Nero. The soundtrack is just as eclectic--it includes Ennio Morricone (of course), the original DJANGO theme song, Jim Croce, and....Tupac.

As for the controversy surrounding the film's dealing with slavery, I honestly think Tarantino doesn't give a hoot about any political or social meanings. This is the guy who changed world history so he could have a great climax for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Movie critics absolutely adore Tarantino, so he's probably not going to get too much backlash. That being said, DJANGO UNCHAINED is not for everyone. If you think this is going to be a funny Western with Jamie Foxx, it's not. If you are a fan of Tarantino's you'll enjoy it. If you don't like extreme violence or language I would suggest you skip this one. I was impressed with DJANGO, except for one thing....not once during the entire movie does Django drag a coffin behind him, like the original Django did. How could have Tarantino missed putting that in?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Highlights Of 2012

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned meeting Svengoolie at the 2012 G-Fest held in Rosemont, IL. I met some other people of note at that convention as well--Akira Takarada (on the left) and Bin Furuya (on the right). Akira Takarada starred in the original GODZILLA, and appeared in a number of other Toho kaiju films, including INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER and KING KONG ESCAPES. Bin Furuya was the original Ultraman!
In August of this year I attended the Wizard Comic Con with my brother Robert, which was held right down the road from where G-Fest was. We got our picture taken with STAR WARS actors Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett).

Some pretty nerdy highlights, huh? Well, that's my life.

By the way, since it's the end of the year, I'd like to thank all of you who have taken time to read this blog. I must admit when I started doing this I wasn't too confident on how it would turn out, but I've gotten a number of nice comments and doing this blog has been very enjoyable for me. If any of you gracious readers out there have any suggestions, or have in mind any certain films, performers, or subjects you would like me to blog about, please feel free to let me know.

Happy New Year and Thank You

Dan Day, Jr.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy Birthday To Marlene Dietrich

You know all the Britneys, and Christinas, and Katys, and Taylors that inhabit today's cultural landscape? All of those women combined could never be as legendary as Marlene Dietrich.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays Of 2012

I've been doing a top five DVD/Blu-ray list on my Facebook page for the last couple years. Most of the titles I pick are usually pretty obscure, because my list isn't about the best FILMS on DVD/Blu-ray, it's about the best DVD/Blu-rays themselves. There is a difference.

Most new movies released on home video are given the same generic treatment--the same usual featurettes, where the cast & crew go on about how "This is the best script I've ever read!" or "I've always wanted to work with this director!" If you want me to talk about some Will Ferrell movie, or THE AVENGERS, or BRAVE, I suggest you go to the "US Weekly" website.

Great DVD/Blu-ray releases are becoming fewer and fewer, because just about all the studios now release their older product on DVD-R. While that means a number of films that probably would never see the light of day are now being released, it also means no more special features, or audio commentaries, or remastered editions. It's way cheaper to slap an old movie on DVD-R than it is to do all the work needed to prepare a "special edition". There are still some companies who take the time and trouble to make a DVD/Blu-ray release a worthy purchase--companies such as Kino, Criterion, and a few others.

But don't worry--if you are a film buff and like spending all your hard-earned money on this stuff, there are still plenty of things available for you. Here, in my extremely humble opinion, are the best DVD/Blu-rays of 2012:

1. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Blu-ray) from Universal
The reason I picked this number one is because of the incredible restoration that was done on this title. ALL QUIET was made in 1930, and the Blu-ray version looks like it was made yesterday. The silent version of ALL QUIET is included as well, and a nice little booklet about the production is part of the packaging.

2. TWINS OF EVIL (Blu-ray) from Synapse
Of course, I have to pick a Hammer film starring Peter Cushing. TWINS had not been available in any Region One format until this release, and Synapse has done this film up right, with a number of special features. There's an all-new documentary, THE FLESH AND THE FURY: X-POSING TWINS OF EVIL, which is almost as long as the actual film, and is one of the best extras put on a DVD in years. There's also a look at the Hammer Props collection of studio historian Wayne Kinsey. I'm sure a lot of people will think it's crazy to go to all this effort for a vampire film that isn't really one of Hammer's best efforts (some of my Facebook friends won't like me saying that), but I think Synapse should commended, especially in an age where most "big name" movies don't get a home video showcase like this.

3. LONESOME (Blu-ray) from Criterion
This is actually a set of films from experimental Hungarian filmmaker Paul Fejos, made during his time at Universal Studios in the late 1920s. LONESOME is kind of like a version of SUNRISE set in urban America. The other two movies included here are THE LAST PERFORMANCE, starring Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin, and the early talkie-part musical BROADWAY. I didn't really know much about Fejos until I bought this. This set is filled with documentaries and a audio commentary which tell about the man. Only Criterion would put out something like this--and it's a good thing that there is a company which does that.

I wrote a blog about this earlier. Hopefully this release will be popular enough to induce Sony to finally put out all the other Frank Capra movies still unavailable on home video.

5. WINGS (Blu-ray) from Paramount
WINGS is of course the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie's restoration looks great, and among the features are a re-recording of the film's original score, and a special effects track prepared by Ben Burtt (the man behind the sound of the STAR WARS series).

NOTE: I chose the films for this list from my own collection. The fact that I work for a living means I can't buy everything, so if you are wondering why, say, something like the Universal Blu-ray box set of their monster movies is not on here, it's because I don't own it. However, if anyone out there would like to send me money to buy any products that you feel should be on this list......

Saturday, December 22, 2012


One of the most obscure World War One movies is I WAS A SPY, which was produced by Gaumont-British in 1933. The story is based on the real-life adventures of Belgian Marthe Cnockaert, who passed information to Allied agents while working as a nurse in a German military hospital during World War One. The film was released on DVD a couple years ago by VCI Home Entertainment.

The movie stars the exquisitely lovely Madeleine Carroll as Marthe and Conrad Veidt as the German Town Commandant. The cast also includes a number of well-known British talent from the era: Herbert Marshall, Edmund Gwenn, Donald Calthorp, Nigel Bruce, Eva Moore, and Anthony Bushell.

I WAS A SPY is very different from most WWI films in that the setting is a occupied Belgian town instead of the usual trenches or airfields. The incidents involving the Belgian citizens and their relationship with the German Army seems more akin to a movie about WWII. A number of scenes dealing with espionage would be pretty cliche about ten years later, but they seem original when placed in a WWI drama. This is not strictly a "war" film, due to the fact that there are no major battles staged, but the conflict is never very far away--in just about every scene there are German soldiers somewhere in the background.

Despite her usual patrician manner, Madeleine Carroll is excellent as Marthe. What makes her character unusual is that while Marthe is spying on the Germans, she's still also doing her best as a nurse. Marthe is even awarded the Iron Cross (as did the real Cnockaert). Her beauty and grace attract the attentions of the Town Commandant, played by Conrad Veidt at his villainous best. Veidt gives off an almost reptilian quality--one wants to cringe when he tries to seduce Marthe. But at the same time, Veidt never overacts and keeps the Commandant from becoming an over-the-top caricature.

Herbert Marshall's character works in the same hospital as Marthe, and he is a spy as well. Marthe falls for him, which leads to the familiar "duty before love" subplot. It is nice that Carroll does not act like a Mata Hara, and Marshall is nowhere near the typical dashing espionage agent.

Director Victor Saville keeps things going at a fast pace throughout the 86-minute running time. This is not a very well-known production--I had never heard of it until I saw it listed on Amazon. But it is certainly of interest for those who are WWI and history buffs. I WAS A SPY will also appeal to those who enjoy classic British Cinema, and classic British film performers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Concerning THE HOBBIT

My paperback copy of J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is 306 pages long. Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, is about three hours long.....and there's still two more parts to go. So when I say that my first impression of the film is that it's "overstuffed", I think you can understand what I mean.

I am a huge fan of THE LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy. Seeing those films in a theater was one of the last times I had the feeling of experiencing cinema history right in front of me. I have to say that I didn't have that feeling while watching THE HOBBIT. It's very well made, it has some great moments, and it's certainly worth going to see, but so far, it just doesn't have the majesty that the RINGS trilogy had.

One of the problems is that THE LORD OF THE RINGS dealt with the entire fate of Middle Earth, while THE HOBBIT is really about a bunch of dwarves trying to get their gold back. The stakes just aren't as high. Jackson includes a backstory about the lost dwarf kingdom to try to alleviate this. Unfortunately the audience is predisposed to look at the dwarves as comic figures because of the way Gimli was portrayed in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There are 13 dwarves in THE HOBBIT, and some of then are designed so outlandishly that it's hard to really be concerned about them. Richard Armitage is pretty good as Thorin, the Alpha Male Dwarf Prince. The rest of the dwarves are almost interchangeable (if you asked me to look at stills of them all and name them I couldn't do it).

For a movie called THE HOBBIT, the actual Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, kind of gets lost in the shuffle. The charm of Tolkien's book is that the reader sees the story through Bilbo's eyes. Jackson has put so much extra material in the film that sometimes you forget Bilbo's even there. THE LORD OF THE RINGS did have some silly humor and large-scale action sequences, but in THE HOBBIT those elements are amped way, way up--it's as if Jackson & Co. felt the material wasn't strong enough. THE HOBBIT has way more of a video game feel than the RINGS trilogy did. The battle against the mountain goblins just goes on and on, and gets crazier and Jackson was doing a bad imitation of the Mines of Moria sequence from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. There are some other scenes that give off a kind of "I've been here before" type of feeling.

Among the extra stuffing that Jackson serves up is an appearance by the wizard Rastagan the Brown, played by former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy. Rastagan literally stops the show, and not really in a good way. There are also a number of cameos from veterans of the RINGS trilogy. It's always great to see Sir Christopher Lee on the big screen, no matter how brief.

As I mentioned, there are some worthy moments. The legendary game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum is probably the best thing in the movie. Sir Ian McKellen is once again dead perfect as Gandalf. McKellen is the backbone of the entire series--without him these films would have never worked. During one of the wild action set-pieces there's a fight between stone giants that approaches a Ray Harryhausen-like quality. The dwarves singing in Bilbo's house before the start of their journey is a hauntingly powerful scene that reminds one of the best parts of the RINGS trilogy.

I enjoyed THE HOBBIT, and I'll probably go see it again...heck, I might even like it better the second time. It's a very good production, but I just didn't get the same feeling of greatness I got from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Some people have made PHANTOM MENACE comparisons--it's nowhere near that disappointing--but I kind of wanted to be a bit more awed and impressed. There's still two films to go, so maybe the end will justify the means.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I've seen so many movies that it isn't very often now that I get to see a notable film for the first time. Yesterday Turner Classic Movies ran THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, whose main claim to fame is it was the first feature film to be directed by Sam Peckinpah. This film is not widely available on home video and is almost never shown on TV.....which is why I had not caught up to yet.

Just about everything Sam Peckinpah directed or had a hand in has been analyzed and dissected a thousand ways. THE DEADLY COMPANIONS doesn't get much coverage, even from Peckinpah scholars. Some fans of the director believe that it's not a "real" Peckinpah film, because he didn't have control of the script or the final edit. Nevertheless, it foreshadows several well-known elements that would appear in Peckinpah's later work.

The story concerns mysterious ex-Union soldier Yellowlegs (Brian Keith), who happens upon cocky gunfighter Billy (Steve Cochran) and Rebel deserter and card cheat Turk (Chill Wills). Yellowlegs has a personal reason to keep close to these men, and he suggests that they rob a bank in a small town called Gila City. The three ride there only to have other bandits attempt to rob the bank first. In the shoot-out that follows Yellowlegs accidentally kills the young son of saloon hostess Kit (Maureen O'Hara). Kit is considered a "bad woman" by the townspeople, so she decides to bury her son next to his father....but her late husband is laid to rest in a ghost town deep into Apache territory. Yellowlegs, feeling guilty, coerces Billy and Turk to join him in accompanying Kit on the journey.

Sam Peckinpah is best known for orchestrating frenetic and extremely violent action set-pieces, but you won't find any of those in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS. This is a slow, bitter, elegiac film--it feels like the work of an older man instead of the feature film debut of someone who was at the age of 35. Despite the fact that the cinematographer was the famed William Clothier, there are no sweeping vistas or panoramic scenes of natural beauty here--the country that the Companions ride through is barren and desolate.

There are several connections to Peckinpah's more famous films. Yellowlegs has a lot in common with many other Peckinpah characters like Major Dundee, Pike Bishop, Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner, and Pat Garrett--he's determined to see a job through, even though completion of the task may mean his physical (and personal) destruction. Billy and Turk are the first of the "prairie scum" that would always inhabit the rest of Peckinpah's Western output. Strother Martin has a small role as a preacher, which is somewhat ironic considering the roles he would play for Peckinpah in the future.

Maureen O'Hara was, of course, an incredibly beautiful woman, and her looks have somewhat overshadowed her acting talent. The "dance hall girl" is one of the biggest cliches of the Western, but O'Hara makes Kit into a three-dimensional person, a single mother who, despite suffering extreme hardship, has not lost her pride or her spirit. Very few actresses at the time could have played this role. Brian Keith was one of the most underrated of American actors--he wasn't known as a superstar, but he made a lot of so-called superstars look pretty good. Keith was never showy, or flashy, but he brought a realness and a solid foundation to every part he undertook. Yellowlegs is a character who always keeps everything close to the vest (we never even find out his real name) and the audience never really knows what Yellowlegs is going to do or how he is going to act. Keith, though, has an inner strength that he is able to project which makes the viewer like and trust him. O'Hara and Keith had just appeared together in THE PARENT TRAP, and they have excellent chemistry-- almost as good as the chemistry O'Hara had with John Wayne, but in a very different way. Steve Cochran and Chill Wills, in this movie at least, act like the type of guys you want to see get punched in the face.

The reason Sam Peckinpah was given a chance to direct THE DEADLY COMPANIONS was because of the recommendation of Brian Keith, who had worked with Peckinpah in American television. The man who hired Peckinpah was producer Charles Fitzsimons--who happened to be Maureen O'Hara's brother. The ultra-professional O'Hara and Peckinpah didn't get along too well--a sign of things to come for the rest of "Bloody Sam's" career. One can be sure that Peckinpah was jealous over the family relationship between producer and lead actress. (By the way, it really is Maureen singing the song during the beginning & end credits.)

As mentioned before, THE DEADLY COMPANIONS has nowhere near the reputation of other Peckinpah films such as RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH. It's not a bad film by any's well made, with great performances by O'Hara and Keith. But it's very depressing, and it makes one wonder....if you took away all the violence of Peckinpah's more famous work, what would you have left? Something like THE DEADLY COMPANIONS.

NOTE: This film is going to be released on DVD by VCI Entertainment in February 2013.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


I own a number of what I call "film location" books. These books show the actual locations, or buildings, or streets, that were used for filming certain movie productions. I have one on Hammer Films which just came out this year, and I have a couple written by John Bengtson and published by Santa Monica Press, concerning Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. It's fascinating to know that what is now an old building is something Harold Lloyd performed on top of. The idea that an ordinary street corner is a place where Buster Keaton ran away from some movie cops is the type of stuff I love to read about.

So when I saw on Amazon that THE THREE STOOGES: HOLLYWOOD FILMING LOCATIONS was up for pre-order, I was pretty excited. I haven't talked about the Stooges yet on any of my posts, but I've been watching them almost my entire life. I have every Three Stooges Columbia short subject on DVD. If there is one thing in the world that makes me laugh no matter what the circumstances, it's The Three Stooges.

I actually pre-ordered this book back in 2011, and it just came out this month! But it is definitely worth the wait. Written by Stooge expert Jim Pauley, this volume is somewhat different than other film location books in that most of the Stooges' work at Columbia was filmed at the studio lots. In fact this book is somewhat of a mini-history of Columbia Studios. There are tons of pictures of Columbia's sets and infrastructure. There are also maps of Columbia's lots as well. I think it's safe to say that Columbia has never been covered this extensively anywhere else. Compared to companies such as MGM, Warner Brothers, and Universal, Columbia hasn't had much historical light shown on it.

Of course this book is about The Three Stooges, and about 70 of their short films for Columbia are featured. The films are listed in alphabetical order. I wish that the films had been listed chronologically, so that the reader would have a better understanding of how the series changed and developed over time, but that's a minor quibble. I like the fact that Pauley has included some of the Shemp and Joe Besser shorts--I love Curly, but Stooge history involves far more than him.

There are a number of behind-the-scenes photos of the Stooges at work, most I've never seen before. There are great "then and now" pictures of the few real locations the Stooges did use--the highlight of any film location book. The famous steps used in the Stooge short AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE are showcased (contrary to urban legend, these are NOT the same steps used in Laurel & Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX). My favorite photo is a full two-page spread of a Columbia Pictures studio banquet with about a hundred (all male) guests. The poor Stooges are seated about as far away from Columbia chief Harry Cohn as they can possibly be!

It's obvious that if you are a Three Stooges fan, you should get this book (or get someone to get it for you). But if you happen to love seeing photos of the backlots and sets from Hollywood's Golden Age, you might want to check this book out. Jim Pauley needs to be commended not just for his painstaking research, but for providing new insight on one of the most popular film comedy teams of all time, and the studio they worked for.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Barbara Stanwyck

This weekend, a Barbara Stanwyck blogathon is being hosted by I wrote this post last year, but it best reflects my feelings for one of my favorite movie performers.

I honestly think that Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest film actress of all time. She could play just about any role. She could be warm and kind, or bitter and dangerous. She could be attractive and alluring, or she could be plain and unlikeable. She could play a working class girl, and play a woman to the manor born. Stanwyck appeared in musicals, comedies, soap opera style dramas, film noirs, historical epics, westerns.....she worked in just about every genre of film, and she fit right in with all of them.

I think what made Stanwyck so versatile was her hardscrabble background. She always referred to her career as "work", and that's why she was able to play so many different roles in so many types of films. She didn't think of herself as a star, and she took on parts that very few of her contemporaries would have done (or done well if they had). Her outstanding work ethic enabled her to approach every movie with real emotional intensity. When you watch Stanwyck, no matter what the circumstances, you never feel she's being "fake".

Of course, there are those famous "Stanwyck Moments" (like the beginning of THE MIRACLE WOMAN) where she just absolutely lets rip, and you can almost feel the paint peeling off the walls. But her acting ability was more than just yelling and screaming--Stanwyck could get across more with one look than several other actresses would with a dozen pages of dialogue.

My favorite Barbara Stanwyck performance is BALL OF FIRE, but I have to admit that my favorite Stanwyck scene is the ending of STELLA DALLAS. Stanwyck is standing outside a window, in the rain, watching her daughter's high-class wedding. She doesn't break down sobbing, and she doesn't move away listlessly.....she walks briskly away, head held high, with a satisfied smile on her lips. Stella Dallas isn't a loser...she's a winner.

THAT'S what always comes to my mind when I think of Barbara Stanwyck.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Five Favorite Film-Related Books

I'm a voracious reader. I've found that most film buffs are. Before the Internet and the home video revolution, the only way you could find out about a number of films was through movie history books. Now, because of the Internet and cable movie channels, more and more films are being rediscovered or looked at in a new way. There are a number of publishers who specialize in topics related to the cinema. Some of the best are Bear Manor Media, Titan Books, and of course McFarland (unfortunately their books are pretty expensive).

I own dozens and dozens of movie books, including some from the Citadel Film Actors Series (I really wish somebody would start that line up again). What makes a film-related book great, in my opinion, is not just the information involved, but the way it is presented. Does it give you a new perspective on a movie you've seen a dozen times? Does it make you want to see a movie you probably had no interest in? Does it make a famous performer into a real human being, instead of a tabloid subject?

I found it very hard to limit myself to just five books. Each book I mention I actually own. These are my favorites because they made me better informed as a film fan, and increased my love for the subject.

I first discovered this book at the South Bend Public Library back in the Eighties. Greg Mank is the ultimate historian of the Golden Age of Classic Cinema Horror. His love and respect for the men and women involved in making these productions, and his uniquely entertaining writing style make his work a must-read for film buffs. Even though this was written 30 years ago, it is still the masterwork on Universal's Frankenstein series. It gives you all the relative "making-of" facts.....but it reads like a historical novel about a extended, eccentric family instead of a movie history book. There have been rumors that a revised edition is in the can only hope so.

Anybody who knows me knows how much I love British horror films. Rigby's work is the definitive volume on the subject. He doesn't just deal with the Hammer period--the book starts in the silent era and goes up to the present day, covering about a hundred films. Rigby gives each one an informative take, and each movie is placed within the context of British cinema (and social) history. Not just a good "monster movie" book--it's a game changing view of British contemporary culture in the late 20th Century.

3. THE GENIUS OF THE SYSTEM by Thomas Schatz
I bought this book in the nineties, and it is the most concise, complete history of the Golden Age of Hollywood that I have ever read. When most people think of Classic Hollywood, they think of individuals actors, or directors, or personalities. This book reminds us it was the studios that made the Golden Age happen, whether film buffs want to admit it or not. All the major Hollywood studios are discussed, along with their house style and their business practices. Schatz goes all the way to the TV era, when the studio system began to decline. This is a great gift for anyone who is just beginning to learn about classic cinema.

This was released in 2007 to coincide with STAR WARS' 30th anniversary. It's a huge book, detailing all facets of the film's production, with tons of rare photos and images. STAR WARS (the original theatrical version) is my favorite movie of all time, so you can see why I would have this book on my list. Rinzler's THE MAKING OF THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is excellent as well.

This is another "making-of" book about one of my all time favorite movies. It's an incredibly meticulous work concerning an incredibly meticulous film director. There have been hundreds of books written about Alfred Hitchcock (and I own a number of them), but this stands out due to it's insight on how the man went about his craft. It also steers away from gossiping about Hitchcock's personal life (which a lot of the other books seem to wallow in).



Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Tribute To Svengoolie

Rich Koz, better known as TV's "Svengoolie", has had to take a break from his show due to some recent health issues. I thought now would be a perfect time to explain what Sven has meant to me.

I've literally been watching this man for over 30 years. Rich Koz started out as "Son of Svengoolie" back in 1979 on WFLD, Channel 32, Chicago. He's just as funny and inventive now as he was back then. In fact, Koz is now probably more popular than ever, due to his being syndicated over the Me-TV Network all over America. If you've never seen a Svengoolie show, it's kind of hard to explain...yes, he's a horror-film host, but his comedy is not just restricted to monster movies. Koz has always mined popular culture, and he's always been able to stay current. Every "Svengoolie" show features a song parody, and Sven has "covered" just about every Top 40 musical act of the past 40 years.

Of course Sven pokes fun at whatever movie he happens to be showing, but he does it in a way that shows he respects classic horror and science-fiction. He laughs WITH the movie, not at it. He always provides bits of information about the films he shows, and he truly knows the genre and the talents behind it. I've seen clips of other horror-movie TV hosts, and most of them couldn't tell the difference between Lon Chaney Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr.

It's obvious that Rich Koz is a Baby Boomer and he grew up watching classic television. The comedy of Svengoolie is family friendly, and it appeals to all age groups. Unlike self-proclaimed "geniuses" like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, Sven doesn't demean his audience or go out of his way to prove how clever he is. Every Svengoolie show is written by one man--Rich Koz. Unlike today's TV "talent", Koz doesn't have a staff of 20 or 30 writers.

But why am I writing a movie blog about him? The simple fact is, Svengoolie helped make me a film buff. Name just about every classic horror and science-fiction film ever made, and I first saw it on Svengoolie. The great films of Universal, Hammer, American-International, Toho....I first experienced them all through the courtesy of the great Sven.

You have to remember that when I started watching Svengoolie, there were no cable movie channels, no VCRs, no DVDs, no Netflix, no YouTube, none of that stuff. If you wanted to see a great monster movie, you had to rely on Sven.....and there was nobody better to rely on, at that time. I'm sure there are many others who got their first exposure to classic fantastic cinema because of this man. For that fact alone, he deserves the highest of accolades.

In a TV world of Ax Swamp Pickers and Alaskan Dance Preppers, Svengoolie truly reigns supreme. Hopefully, for many, many years to come, the cry of BERWYN!!!! will be heard throughout the land.

Thank you, Mr. Koz.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Special Guest Appearance

I've written a guest blog on VIGIL IN THE NIGHT for Lara Fowler's Carole Lombard Filmography Project. The link to it is

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT happens to be the only film which features my favorite all-time actress (Carole Lombard) and my favorite all-time actor (Peter Cushing). So check out the blog!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Steven Spielberg and Hollywood History

Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is another triumph for the director, and it will surely be given a number of Oscar nominations. Some people seem surprised that Spielberg made this movie, but they really shouldn't.

When one thinks of Steven Spielberg, the first thing that comes to mind are the many huge box-office spectaculars he has helmed. But he's also directed more historical dramas than just about any contemporary filmmaker--THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, AMISTAD, MUNICH, and WAR HORSE. Even films that are not considered "historical" such as the INDIANA JONES series and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, deal with a specific time period. One of the great things about movies is that they are able to take you to a time and place that you can never really experience--they are sort of a time machine, if you will. The Hollywood studios of the 1930s-1950s did that better than anyone else, and Steven Spielberg is a descendant of that system.

Spielberg is usually lumped in with his contemporaries--directors such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. While he has a lot in common with them (most of them were film students who broke into the business in the late sixties), Spielberg isn't really like them at all. He certainly isn't one of the "Raging Bulls and Easy Riders"--he's not a rebel and he's not an experimentalist. Even when dealing with important subjects and/or controversial events, Spielberg is still able to make his films accessible to a mass-market audience. In this way Spielberg fits in more with the old Hollywood studio system than the 21st Century.

Spielberg's real contemporaries are Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. Just like those men, Spielberg has worked in just about every type of film genre. He has the ability to change his style for a certain story and film--something Hollywood studio directors had to do out of necessity.
LINCOLN is a perfect example of this. It's an actor's movie, not a director's. There's not a multitude of grand battle sequences or sweeping visuals. In LINCOLN Spielberg gets out of the way, and lets the actors and the story do the work.

If there is one film director working today who could easily fit into the old Hollywood studio system, it is Steven Spielberg. Movie buffs are always saying, "They don't make movies like they used to." Steven Spielberg is one person that does.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


One of the more interesting Blu-rays to be released this year is the Director's Cut of 1986's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. The film was based on the cult Off-Broadway musical, which was based on the cult Roger Corman movie. This version gained cult status for what was NOT put into the theatrical release.

LITTLE SHOP is not an easy film to categorize. It is best described as a musical/horror/dark comedy. It was produced by David Geffen and directed by Frank Oz. A huge amount of money was spent on the production, especially the special effects. The main "Skid Row" set in the film was actually built at Pinewood Studios in England. (It's amazing how much money people will spend to make something look run down.)

The story revolves around geeky Seymour (Rick Moranis), who works at Mushnik's Flower Store. Seymour finds a rather unusual plant, which he names "Audrey II" after the co-worker he secretly pines for (Ellen Greene). Seymour soon finds out that his plant grows on human blood.

Rick Moranis is good as Seymour, but it's Ellen Greene who steals the show (at least among the humans in the cast). Moranis and Greene did their jobs so well that they created the reason why this movie has a director's cut (more on that later). Steve Martin has a small role, and their are a number of celebrity cameos from the likes of Bill Murray, John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Jim Belushi. Martin and Murray are particularly funny but all the cameos are a bit distracting from the main story--one wonders if the producers felt that Moranis and Greene couldn't carry a big-budget film on their own.

Frank Oz is of course best known for his work with The Muppets. He was a perfect choice to helm this project, and not just because of the animatronic work involved. Remember that just about every episode of "The Muppets" had  a couple musical numbers.

The real star is the man-eating plant, called "Audrey II". It was created by SFX artist Lyle Conway, and it's a magnificent piece of work. The plant has different stages of growth, and even winds up talking (the voice is by R & B legend Levi Stubbs). If this story ever gets remade (and yes, there are rumors it will be) the plant will probably be CGI, and it will look terrible. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote the story and music--they both went on to other major projects including several Disney films.

Now...why is this Blu-ray Director's Cut important?

When LITTLE SHOP was originally previewed before it's theatrical release, the story ended just like the play--the lead characters both get killed. Preview audiences liked the performances of Moranis and Greene so much that they reacted negatively to the film's finale. David Geffen and Frank Oz decided to reshoot the ending--Seymour and Audrey live, and Audrey II is destroyed. This was the version that was shown in theaters.

But soon after LITTLE SHOP's release, a number of movie publications such as "Cinefantastique" (see picture above) documented how the original ending also included a show-stopping 15 minute sequence featuring several giant "Audrey II" plants going on a rampage and taking over the world. That sequence soon grew to legendary proportions--to the point were whenever LITTLE SHOP was mentioned, the sequence was always brought up. The original ending became more famous that the film it was cut from, even though no one had ever really seen it completed and finished for the big screen.

The original ending has been available on the internet and was put on an earlier home video version of LITTLE SHOP, but it had never been fully completed or integrated into the actual film until this recent Blu-ray. It's almost like a mini-movie, and it has some brilliant FX work. It's worth buying the Blu-ray just to see this new/old ending.

It's great that both versions are on this Blu-ray, and they both have quality picture and sound. But which version is better? It's easy to see why preview audiences were angry at seeing Seymour and Audrey being killed. The theatrical version of LITTLE SHOP is the more crowd-pleasing one--but the director's cut is really the better movie. LITTLE SHOP is, after all, a dark, satiric comedy. It's also another take on the Faust legend. Seymour makes a deal with the Devil (Audrey II) to gain fame and respect. When you make a deal with the Devil, one way or another, you're gonna have to pay.
You certainly don't want to see Seymour and Audrey die, but it does go with the tone of the story. And the giant plants taking over the world is something that never should have been cut out. (Why didn't the filmmakers think to include it as a dream sequence, to make Seymour realize what he was unleashing on the world?)

The LITTLE SHOP Blu-ray package includes a mini-booklet with photos and info about the film. The Blu-ray extras include some featurettes and commentary by Frank Oz. Kudos to Warner Home Video for putting out both versions of this film. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS may not appeal to everyone, but if you have a taste for unusual fare, this film is worth trying, especially to those who are interested in the original ending.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Daniel Craig As James Bond

In one of my earlier posts on Timothy Dalton, I mentioned that an actor who plays James Bond has to be appealing to the movie-going public. I then wrote "Daniel Craig is the exception--his Bond is a prick--but that's a post for another day." I went and saw SKYFALL this week, so that day is here.

Daniel Craig's James Bond is so far removed from the template laid down by the other Bond actors that it may be years before Craig's performance can adequately be interpreted. It's almost as if Craig is playing another secret agent named James Bond. First of all, Craig is not a classically handsome leading fact, some people think he's downright ugly (I'm just a straight guy from Indiana, so I'm no judge). The Craig Bond is surly, arrogant, and a smart-ass. The other Bonds were all pretty sarcastic...but actors like Sean Connery and Roger Moore had the ability to say a funny comment and make it seem as if they were speaking to the audience. Connery and Moore gave off the attitude that the audience was with them on their spectacular adventures. You get the feeling that Craig isn't with anybody.

The 21st Century James Bond is a sullen, dour-faced professional killer who makes Timothy Dalton seem like a stand-up comedian. The recent Bond movies play this up by making Craig suffer as much as possible--in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, he's seeking revenge for the loss of the woman he loved; and in SKYFALL, he's suffering from a near-death experience and what he feels is a personal betrayal. When Craig finishes an action sequence, he actually has cuts and bruises on him. (Roger Moore could be chased by bad guys for five miles, then fall off a 100 ft. cliff, and his hair and clothes would still be perfect.)

Even before he landed the role of James Bond, Daniel Craig was considered by critics to be a serious, respected actor. I think of him as a "brooding" actor--no matter what film he's in, or what character he happens to be playing, he always looks like he's ticked off about something. Whether that is great acting skill is up to the eye of the beholder. Craig is a very good actor--probably the best "pure" actor to ever play Bond. But what I think is interesting is that while it seems people accept Craig as Bond,  and they respect his acting ability, it doesn't seem that he's beloved by the fans. All three of the Bond movies Craig has starred in have all made huge amounts of money--but I don't think it's because of him.

When EON Productions acquired the rights to make CASINO ROYALE, they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They REALLY could start over--not just a reboot, or a remake, or a reworking--they could actually go right back to the very beginning of James Bond. The Broccoli family, to their credit, took that opportunity and did something they should have done back in the 1980s. They decided to start making the Bond movies in a totally different way, with a totally different James Bond. This isn't your father's--or your grandfather's--James Bond. The series now has supporting actors like Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem (the days of people like Grace Jones and Denise Richards are long gone) and directors like Sam Mendes. Go to any magazine rack and Daniel Craig is just about on every cover. He even made the cover of "Rolling Stone". (Ten years ago, that publication would have given the latest Bond film a two-paragraph review, if that.) The Bond movies are now being covered and taken seriously by elitist media. Whether Daniel Craig's version of Bond is widely popular or not, the series is now stronger than ever.

What do I think of Daniel Craig as James Bond? Well, I must admit that his take on the character was one I always wanted to see....but I also have to say that sometimes he tries just a bit too hard to be a bad-ass. There's really no way to compare Craig to Connery, Moore, and's like comparing apples to oranges. Craig had the advantage of being able to start at the "beginning"...if he had debuted as 007 in a "normal" Bond film, it wouldn't have worked. His Bond is unique.

And what of SKYFALL? It's a lot better than QUANTUM, but it's not the greatest Bond film ever made. It goes on a bit too long (does EVERY film made now have to be two and a half hours in length?) For the third Bond film in a row, the villain is a weird, creepy foreign guy who's more silly than dangerous. Javier Bardem is a disappointment...he seems to be auditioning for the role of the Joker in the next Batman production.

In closing, I appreciate Daniel Craig's portrayal of Bond, but I wouldn't say he's the best Bond ever. Now that Craig's Bond has his "own" M, Q, and Moneypenny, it will be interesting to see if the series might go back to some more traditional Bond storylines. Maybe we'll even get to see Craig crack a real smile.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Five Favorite DVD Audio Commentaries

With the baseball season over, and the NHL season....delayed (ahem), I've had some time to go through my DVD collection and pick out some audio commentaries that I had not yet listened to. Usually it takes me awhile to get to a certain DVD's commentary. There's still dozens and dozens of them that I own that remain unheard.

I've listened to just about every type of audio commentary imaginable. There's what I call the "Eyesight to the blind" commentary, in which the speaker decides to tell you what is happening on the screen ("This guy just walked through the door. Now he's walking across the room..."). There's the "Facts on steroids" commentary, in which the speaker decides to tell you every single fact connected to the movie, no matter how trivial. (I've heard commentators who didn't just mention the relevant credits of a certain actor, they list EVERY CREDIT THE ACTOR EVER HAD.) Then there's the "We're watching a movie?" commentary, where the people involved just decide to shoot the bull for two hours and say absolutely nothing about the film they're supposed to be talking about.

An audio commentary is not as easy as it sounds. The average length of a feature film is about...what? 100 minutes? Could you talk about your favorite movie for 100 minutes? Could you make it interesting? Could you make it relevant? Could you avoid running out of things to say? Could you know how to pace yourself, and match that pace with the tempo of the film? Doing an audio commentary is basically like giving a performance. I'm not saying that every commentator has to sound like Morgan Freeman, but a decent sounding voice and the ability to articulate your thoughts are essential. It amazes me how many actors (who are performers) are lousy at commentaries. I guess the old saying "An actor is lost without a script" has a ring of truth to it. In my experience I have found that the bigger the name, the worse the commentary (George Lucas, anyone?).

There are a number of film scholars/historians/experts who do commentaries, and who have a lot of interesting, thought-provoking things to say....but their deliveries are as dry as dust. I can't tell you the number of times an audio commentary has caused me to fall asleep. (If you suffer from insomnia, try it sometime.)

Having said all that, here's a list of my five favorite (at the moment) DVD audio commentaries.

I know you are reading this and saying, "WHAT!!???" Well, let me explain. Sam Sherman was the theatrical distributor of this little gem, and he spent most of the 60s and 70s on the grindhouse level of the American independent film industry. Sherman's stories about the distribution, production, and promotion of low-budget features are an education. Sam's a great storyteller, and he's far more entertaining than the movie itself. He's never boring, and you feel as if he's having a conversation directly to you. I am absolutely serious about this--it is a great commentary.

2. Roger Ebert--CITIZEN KANE
Just about every film buff has seen KANE probably about a dozen times. But when you listen to Ebert's commentary, it's like watching it for the first time. Of course Ebert's knowledge about the film is astounding, but it's the little details and elements that Ebert brings attention to that make this a worthwhile listening experience. It's a shame Ebert was not able to do more of these.

3. Weird Al Yankovic (with Jay Levey)--UHF
This commentary gets high marks for it's originality. Weird Al not only gives you relevant information (including the actual street addresses were certain scenes were shot), he uses the commentary as a source for comic gags. And not just audio gags--visual gags as well. (At one point Weird Al announces he has to go for a while--and we actually see him get up and leave.) Weird Al also talks to co-star Michael Richards and fields a phone call from leading lady Victoria Jackson (of course the mainstream media now consider Richards and Jackson two of the most evil people who ever lived).

4. Tim Lucas--BLACK SUNDAY
Tim Lucas wrote the book on BLACK SUNDAY director Mario Bava (no, really...he DID write a book on Bava). Film expert Lucas (the founder of VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine) gives us all sorts of information and analysis, and there's no one better at dissecting a movie. BLACK SUNDAY has been re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray, and Lucas' commentary has always been included. Lucas has done similar work on a number of DVDs, but this one is his best, and it has a legendary reputation among horror film buffs.

5. Christopher Frayling--THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (Blu-ray)
Frayling wrote the book on Sergio Leone (no, really....he DID write a book on Leone). Listening to this is like taking a college course on Italian Westerns. The most impressive aspect about this is...GBU is about three hours long, and Frayling never runs out of material. He's interesting and informative right till the end.

I need to also mention film historians Tom Weaver, Greg Mank, and David Kalat. I couldn't really pick out just one of their many commentaries...they are all uniformly excellent.

Now...would you like to make a comment on my comments on commentaries?

Friday, November 2, 2012

DVD Review: Frank Capra--The Early Collection

Sony Home Entertainment has recently released on DVD a set of five films directed by the legendary Frank Capra. The films were made between 1930-33 and are some of the more obscure items in Capra's career. They were all made at Columbia, the studio were Capra achieved his greatest work. None of the films have been on DVD before, which is hard to believe, considering Capra's fame. (Amazingly, there are still a number of Capra films unavailable on DVD.)

The title of the set should really be "Frank Capra & Barbara Stanwyck", because four of the five films feature the actress. This set shows both Capra & Stanwyck early in their careers, before they reached their peak. Capra's talent as a filmmaker is obvious--even though none of these movies can be considered among Capra's best, each one of them contain some of his touches. Despite some of the weakness of the storylines, Capra is always trying to do something different visually--from staging a scene in a unusual manner to using unique camera angles. Although the period represented here is still very early in Hollywood's talkie era, Capra handles sound very well and incorporates it in a number of ways that the average contemporary director wouldn't. It would take a couple of years before Capra really found his style and basically invented his own film genre ("Capraesque"), but this early work shows that Capra was already a standout talent. Every film in this set has two of Capra's most famous touches: a rain scene and a sequence involving a giant crowd (only Fritz Lang and Sergio Leone handled large crowds as well as Capra did).

As for Barbara Stanwyck, she's certainly not as polished as she would be by the late 30s-early 40s, but her performances here include a number of those famous Stanwyck "emotional moments" where she blows the screen away. Capra apparently fell in love with Stanwyck during their early collaboration, and it shows in the way she is photographed in these films. A number of times Capra lets everything come to a stop and he just has the camera linger on Stanwyck. There were other famous leading ladies who worked well with Capra, such as Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, and Donna Reed, but none ever had the raw intensity that Stanwyck did in the early 30s.

The films that make up this set are:

LADIES OF LEISURE (1930): Capra and Stanwyck's very first teaming. Barbara plays cynical "party girl" Kay, who is hired as a model by rich magnate's son/aspiring artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves). Kay and Jerry fall in love, upsetting his father. The title makes one think that there's going to be a lot more going on then what really is. This is almost a two-role story, and it doesn't help that Ralph Graves is a pretty unappealing leading man. One wonders why Kay goes to all the trouble she does to win him. Capra & Stanwyck try hard to inject some life in the tepid storyline.

RAIN OR SHINE (1930): This is the only film in the set which does not feature Stanwyck. It's about the problems of a down-on-it's-luck circus run by Smiley Johnson (Joe Cook). The story was based on a Broadway musical, but Capra removed the songs. What's left can only be described as strange. The movie is filled with various surrealistic gags--it's almost as if Capra used up all the tricks he had left over from working with Mack Sennett and Harry Langdon. Most of the "jokes" fall flat. The climax features a violent brawl between the circus troupe and an entire big top audience--and then the circus catches on fire. The juxtaposition between the realism of the fire and the bizarre comedy routines is somewhat jarring.
Joe Cook was a famous Vaudeville personality of the time. His persona here is that of a fast-talking con man, and he comes off as very annoying. Included on the RAIN OR SHINE disc is the "international" version of the film, which is 20 minutes shorter. It's part-silent with sound effects, and it has different scenes and a different ending. This version actually plays better than the original one--there's less weird comedy, and you don't have to listen to Joe Cook talk.

THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931): A movie which anticipates ELMER GANTRY by about 30 years, THE MIRACLE WOMAN has Barbara Stanwyck as a preacher's daughter who becomes the main attraction in a big-time revival show. One of Stanwyck's great career moments occurs at the very beginning of the film. Just after her father has died from the strain of being replaced by his church, Stanwyck has to address the entire congregation. She proceeds to call them all out as hypocrites, and then she REALLY lets rip. It's a powerful scene--you feel as if Babs is making the paint peel from the walls.
The revival show is really run by a shady con artist (Sam Hardy), and one wishes the story had spent more time on the machinations of this "religious" organization. Instead, too much time is spent on the romance between Stanwyck's Sister Fallon and a blind war veteran (David Manners) who was inspired by listening to Fallon on the radio. Once again, Stanwyck is paired with a bland leading man (a common fate for lead actresses in Pre-Code Hollywood). Capra stages the revival show as a cross between a sporting event and a vaudeville revue. The climax has yet another large-scale fire. An interesting film, but one gets the feeling it should have been much better.

FORBIDDEN (1932): This one is a soap opera all the way--Stanwyck is the mistress of a rising married politician (Adolphe Menjou), and the mother of his child. The story gets more and more unbelievable as it goes along, and only the lead actress and the director make it worth watching. Barbara gets to have an out-of-wedlock child, commit murder, and age about twenty-five years. Menjou is certainly an upgrade over most of Stanwyck's leading men at the time, but once again one wonders why she bothered with him.

THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933): This is the highlight of the set--Capra's attempt at an "art film". Stanwyck is the fiancee of a missionary based in civil war-torn China who winds up in the hands of brutal warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). During her stay at the General's palace, the prim woman starts to fall for him. With lush art direction and exquisite cinematography by Joseph Walker, BITTER TEA feels almost like a Von Sternberg product. The interracial coupling was pretty controversial even by Pre-Code standards--and Pre-Code or not, Barbara Stanwyck is not going to wind up with a Chinese warlord.
Some 21st Century viewers may be uncomfortable with a Swedish actor portraying an Asian, but Nils Asther does well under the circumstances. Stanwyck's Megan is a far cry from the working-class roles she usually played at this time. BITTER TEA is not just a atmospheric romance--there are some well-staged battle sequences. The story opens with a large-scale evacuation of a war-torn Chinese village--something that Capra would sort of re-do in his later LOST HORIZON. Capra admitted in his biography that he was trying to win an Oscar with BITTER TEA, but the movie was not a success and the director never made anything quite like it during the rest of his career. THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN would soon be overshadowed by Capra's later productions, but it now stands as a very underrated film.

Each film in this set gets it's own DVD (unlike some DVD sets which cram two or three movies on a single disc). The extras included for all five include publicity, still, and poster galleries, liner notes, featurettes with Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Michel Gondry; and there are two commentaries: Jeanine Basinger for FORBIDDEN and Jeremy Arnold for LADIES OF LEISURE. The set is only available from the Turner Classic Movies website or Movies Unlimited.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What If....Disney Had Originally Made STAR WARS??

The big news on the internet today is the announcement that the Disney Company bought Lucasfilm.

Everybody's wondering what Disney might do with the Star Wars franchise in the future...but I wonder, what if Disney had started it in the 70s? I think the cast list would have been something like this:

Luke Skywalker..........Kurt Russell
Han Solo..........Dean Jones
Princess Leia..........Hayley Mills
Obi Wan-Kenobi..........Brian Keith
Darth Vader..........Keenan Wynn
Grand Moff Tarkin..........Joe Flynn
C-3PO..........Don Knotts
R2-D2..........Tim Conway
Chewbacca..........Meadowlark Lemon
Uncle Owen..........Fred MacMurray
Aunt Beru..........Angela Lansbury

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Peter Cushing--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Peter Cushing horror film performances:

1. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960): Peter's first go-round as vampire hunter Van Helsing was in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, but BRIDES is the character's best showcase. Earlier cinematic monster fighters were usually older academic types paired with a younger leading man. Cushing is a combination of the two--he's smart enough to know all the lore and legend about any supernatural creature, but physical enough to take on any creature in combat. Cushing's Van Helsing was as much a game changer as Christopher Lee's Dracula. The movie motif of the "Fearless Vampire Killer" really comes from Peter Cushing. Whenever you see someone in a film or TV show fashion a cross from various items, or walk around at night with a satchel looking for vampires, they are channeling Cushing. But no one else can bring the authority or determination to monster hunting as Cushing did. He is, hands down, the screen's greatest monster fighter of all time.

2. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969): This was Cushing's fifth time in the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein--but the Baron was never as cold or cruel as he is here. By the sheer force of his personality, Cushing overpowers everyone else in this film. Nattily attired and icily correct in manner and speech, the Baron is a monster without any make-up. Most actors would have to resort to violent acts or yelling and screaming to put over true evil. Cushing can do it with just a stare or a slight gesture. A truly brilliant portrayal.

3. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959): Hammer Films' version of Conan Doyle's most famous Sherlock Holmes tale isn't really a horror film, but it counts here. Peter would go on to play Holmes a couple more times, but this is his definitive Holmes performance. One has to remember that there had not been a Sherlock Holmes on the big screen since Basil Rathbone. Cushing's Holmes was far different than Rathbone's--and a lot of people at the time didn't really appreciate it. Many critics give credit to Jeremy Brett for creating a eccentric, complex, "real" Holmes--but Peter Cushing was really the first to do it. Peter's Holmes is all the over the place. He has more energy than Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein combined--Cushing's way of showing that Holmes' mind is so great he simply can't stay still. Some have said Cushing was too short to play the great detective--but in this film Peter uses that as a plus. He stands right next to the much taller Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) and stares right up at him, almost challenging the man with his intellect. How many other actors could take a defect and use it to make their performance better?

4. NIGHT CREATURES aka CAPTAIN CLEGG (1962): Once again, not really a true horror film--it's more of a bizarre adventure (a lot of the so-called "Hammer Horrors" were really just bizarre adventures). Cushing kind of plays a dual role--he poses as the kindly Reverend Dr. Blyss, when he is actually the legendary smuggler Captain Clegg. Clegg/Blyss uses his "parish" of Dymchurch to continue his smuggling activities. Cushing gets a chance to play a swashbuckling anti-hero, and he's fantastic. Peter gives this role a ambiguous quality--as Dr. Blyss, he serves as the village vicar and he seems to genuinely care about his flock. But when the Captain has to take care of business, Cushing's whole attitude changes. Watching Cushing go back and forth between his "roles" is a lesson in screen acting. NIGHT CREATURES is a film which is not as well-known as Peter's other Hammer appearances, but it should be.

5. TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972): This is one of the many anthology films from Amicus that Peter appeared in during the late 60s--early 70s. In this one he plays Arthur Grimsdyke in the story "Poetic Justice". The problem with anthology films is that because the stories have relatively little screen time, the characterizations have to be somewhat basic. Cushing is still able to make Grimsdyke a fully real person despite the limitations of the anthology format. It's one of the few times that Cushing plays a working class man (and one of the few times Cushing doesn't sport a snappy wardrobe). It's also one of the few times Cushing had to wear "monster" make-up. The role of Grimsdyke could have easily been nothing more than a throwaway--poor old man is driven to death by snobbish neighbors, comes back from the grave to get revenge--but Peter makes Grimsdyke much more than just the set-up to a horror punch-line. Moving and poignant, Arthur Grimsdyke is one of Cushing's finest creations.

Peter Cushing is my favorite actor of all time. In the book "Cult Movie Stars", author Danny Peary called Cushing "The most important and beloved figure of the British horror-fantasy film." There's no doubt about that. When I attended G Fest this year in Rosemont, IL, I wore my Peter Cushing t-shirt. There were people literally walking up to me and shaking my hand--that's how much love and respect Peter Cushing has among horror and science-fiction film fans worldwide.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sir Christopher Lee--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Christopher Lee horror film performances:

1. HORROR OF DRACULA (1958): Lee's first outing as the Count was a game changer. There hadn't been a movie monster like him until then--one can only imagine the effect this had on late 50s film audiences. Lee's Dracula is still scary even now. No CGI enhanced image can match the power of Lee's feral intensity. He's only in the movie for a few moments, but every single one of them has an impact. It's a cliche' to say that Lee has a "commanding presence", but he does, and it enabled him to inhabit this role like no one before or since (other than Lugosi). Lee went on to play the Count several times, but never again in a production with the overall quality of HORROR OF DRACULA.
Whether Lee likes it or not, Dracula is his signature role.

2. THE MUMMY (1959): The greatest movie mummy of all time? With respect to Boris Karloff, it has to be Sir Chris. His Mummy is not some shambling, slow-moving wreck--it's powerful, quick, and cunning. The old joke about how all you have to do to defeat the Mummy is to outrun him doesn't apply here. This Kharis is one you could believe is dangerous. But it's not just the physical aspect of the role that Lee brings over. Swathed in wrappings and bereft of speech, Lee is still able to show every emotion Kharis is feeling. Just look at Lee's eyes and his body language when Kharis sees what he thinks is his long lost love--no "mainstream" actor could have done any better. A powerful and moving performance--more proof that it's the human, not the make-up or the FX, that makes the monster.

3. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968): Lee is on the good side here, playing the Duc de Richleau. This film is based on British author Dennis Wheatley's novel, a book Lee admired and had in fact suggested that Hammer make into a movie. Even though Lee is the "good guy", he still gives the Duc the same intensity and absolute seriousness he would to a macabre part. Lee's de Richleau is involved in fighting a satanic cult, and we buy into the story because of Lee's focus and attitude. Lee's rigid determination to take all his horror and science-fiction roles seriously, no matter how bad the circumstances, is why he is beloved by so many fans. This film proves that Lee would have made just as great a monster fighter as his close friend Peter Cushing.

4. THE WICKER MAN (1973): Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the head of a pagan community located on an offshore Scottish island. In a way Summerisle is more terrifying than any of Lee's supernatural creations, because Summerisle could really exist (and probably does, somewhere). This is an unusual and disturbing film, not for all tastes. Lee plays the role totally against the grain--and he keeps the audience off their guard the whole time. THE WICKER MAN shows that Lee could do much more than just stand around and look menacing.

5. CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958): This is more a historical melodrama than a straight horror film, but Lee steals the show in a supporting part. He plays the sinister Resurrection Joe, a body snatcher who gets involved with Boris Karloff's Dr. Bolton. Dressed in a shabby frock coat & top hat, and at times sporting a Cheshire Cat smile, Lee makes huge impression. He gives Joe a soft-spoken Cockney accent and a quietly dangerous attitude. It's one of those "commanding presence" roles that Lee was (in)famous for, but nobody else could play that type of role better than him.

No other actor has had a career like Sir Christopher Lee, and no one ever will. Can anyone else say that they have been directed by Raoul Walsh, John Huston, Michael Powell, Nicholas Ray, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, Michael Reeves, Jess Franco, Billy Wilder, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and Martin Scorsese?  Can anyone else say they have been appearing in theatrical films for more than 65 years? Lee has been accused of being a stiff and boring actor, but as a performer he is far more complex and talented than his critics give him credit for. The man is a true legend.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Special Anniversary

On this day seven years ago, the Chicago White Sox won the 2005 MLB World Series.

What does this have to do with motion pictures?

Absolutely nothing.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vincent Price--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Vincent Price horror film performances:

1. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971): One of the most bizarre & unique films ever made, and a perfect showcase for Price. The horribly burned Dr. Anton Phibes seeks revenge for the death of his beloved wife. Scientist, theologian, and musician, Phibes is a combination of just about every horror role Price played--but the end result goes way beyond all the other roles. Because Phibes is so disfigured, Price is not able to speak his lines normally. Even though we hear Phibes' recreated voice, Vincent has to play the role silent--and he does it magnificently. Take away Phibes' "lines" and we would still know exactly what he is thinking. Making an audience accept the improbable or impossible is a feat every performer in any horror or science-fiction film strives for. It's a feat that is taken for granted if done well--which is why Price still never gets enough credit for what he had to go through to play Phibes.
PHIBES is somewhat campy, and it does have some of the elements that figure into the "Uncle Vincent" persona that made Price a huge public figure in the 70s. But despite all the outre aspects of PHIBES, Price is still able to bring a touch of sadness and righteous anger to the character. In my more than humble opinion. Vincent Price's greatest screen performance.

2. HOUSE OF USHER (1960): There's very little doubt that Vincent Price was the only actor who could properly personify the spirit of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. USHER was Price's first foray into Poe territory, and his first teaming with director Roger Corman and American-International Pictures. Price, Corman, and AIP would go on to make horror film history. White-haired, clean-shaven, and ghostly pale, Roderick Usher is almost a negative image of Price. You feel as if Roderick is made of porcelain--he might crack at any minute. Vincent was made for this role, just as Lugosi was for Dracula and Karloff for the Monster. Price obviously knew how important this role would be for him. His Roderick is light-years away from his work with William Castle. This film made Price into an icon.

3. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961): AIP's follow up to USHER. Price & Corman out-do themselves to an extent (USHER is ranked higher because it was the first of Price's Poe outings). Vincent's Nicholas Medina is a LOT more emotional than Roderick Usher, but with all the stuff he has to go through, you can't blame him. The last ten minutes are Price at the top of his game. Great to see Vincent together with Barbara Steele.

4. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964): Yes, another Price-Corman-AIP-Poe film. But let's face it, this series represents just about everything people think of when Vincent Price is mentioned. Prince Prospero is probably Price's most evil role (some would choose Matthew Hopkins in WITCHFINDER GENERAL). By this time, Corman and AIP were trying to change the Poe formula. MASQUE was made in England, with a better supporting cast than was usual in the Poe films. Price still dominates--only he could play Prospero. There have been a number of other Poe adaptions over the years, but without Vincent Price, they haven't amounted to much.

5. THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1963): Many people have accused Price of being campy. He really wasn't most of the time, but it's part of his persona. Actually Price was a very underrated light comic actor (try watching HIS KIND OF WOMAN sometime). In COMEDY OF TERRORS, Vincent gets to show what would have happened if he had worked for Hal Roach or Mack Sennett. Vincent plays Waldo Trumbull, a mediocre 19th Century undertaker. Things are so bad off that Trumbull decides to try and kill the richest man in town (Basil Rathbone) so he can clean up by holding a huge funeral. Unfortunately Trumbull is saddled with a dimwit assistant (Peter Lorre), a senile father-in-law (Boris Karloff) and an annoying wife (Joyce Jameson). Price gets to run the gamut of comic acting here--slapstick, double-takes, slow burns--and he even gets some "drunk" scenes. Price & Lorre are almost a Gothic Laurel & Hardy. Vincent's comic timing is perfect, and he's not being campy....he is genuinely funny.

Vincent Price was somewhat fortunate to wind up involved in the Gothic horror film revival of the late 50s-early 60s. If Price had remained nothing more than a well-respected character actor, he certainly wouldn't have been anywhere near the legend he became. Although accused of being "campy", Price had the talent to make the outlandish real. Very few performers could pull off what Vincent Price accomplished on the screen.

I originally posted this last year, and I decided to contribute it to The Vincent Price Blogathon, currently being hosted by The Nitrate Diva ( If you are a Vincent Price fan, keep an eye on my the near future I will be writing a post on the new Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray set.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bela Lugosi--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Bela Lugosi horror film performances:

1. WHITE ZOMBIE (1932): No, Dracula isn't on the top of this list. Bela is actually given a lot more to do here, and he's sensational as Zombie master Murder Legendre. Every movement and every gesture by Lugosi has some malevolent meaning. He gets some great lines in this movie, including the classic "For you, my friend, they are the Angels of Death." Lugosi could take just about any line and make it sound as if it had some portent of doom.
By the way, forget about all the public domain DVDs of this film. Try to find the Roan Company DVD, or wait until January when Kino releases this on Blu-ray.

2. THE RAVEN (1935): Nothing against the Count, but this is full-tilt Bela...Bela to the power of 11, so to speak. Bela's Dr. Richard Vollin is just a bit obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. Vollin tries to kill off the rest of the cast using torture devices from Poe's stories. He also blackmails a wanted criminal (Boris Karloff) to help in the plot by disfiguring him. In most of the Karloff-Lugosi teamings, Boris is usually the one with the meatier role, but this is Bela's show all the way. And what a show it is. Bela pulls out all the stops, and Dr. Vollin is his wildest part.

3. DRACULA (1931): And here we are. One of the seminal performances in film history. Bela (and the film) has taken a lot of critical drubbing in recent years, but his Dracula still holds up. Show any little kid a picture of Lugosi and that kid will say, "Dracula". There's nothing more trending than that. Bela Lugosi must still be considered THE ultimate screen vampire.

4. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939): For those who think Lugosi was just a hack actor, think about this: he's surrounded by Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Lionel Atwill....and Bela steals the film. His Ygor is another one of those seminal classic horror film creations. One of the many myths about Lugosi is that he did not know the English language very well. The next time you watch SON notice Bela's dialogue scenes. His timing is perfect, and he gives Ygor's lines the right amount of sarcasm and double meaning. Bela should have received the Best Supporting Actor Award for this role.

5. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932): Another fine example of the "wild & wooly" Bela. As female lead Sidney Fox exclaims after getting her first look at him, "He's a show in himself!" Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle, decked out in frock coat and pilgrim hat, does make a lasting impression. Mirakle tries to find the right woman for his ape so he can prove his theories on evolution. Bela gets a great speech in a sideshow tent which is the best thing in the film. Unfortunately Mirakle isn't around for the climax. If MURDERS had more Bela, it might have joined the ranks of the top-tier Universal Monster Classics.

Bela Lugosi, like Dracula, will never die. He may have been hammy, or over-the-top, but he was unique.....something that is very rare in today's world of entertainment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Karloff The Uncanny--Greatest Hits

My five favorite Boris Karloff horror film performances:

1. FRANKENSTEIN (1931): Kinda obvious, but it has to be. Karloff's portrayal as the Monster isn't just a great horror performance, it's one of the greatest in the history of film. The Monster isn't evil; he's a creature that has been thrust into a world he doesn't understand, by a "father" who only sees him as an experiment. The Monster is actually more human than just about anyone else in the cast. He's the ultimate outsider--which is why a hundred years from now, audiences will still be moved by what Karloff achieved.

2. THE BODY SNATCHER (1945): This isn't really a horror film--it's more of a historical melodrama. Karloff plays John Gray, an early 19th Century Scottish graverobber. Gray is more of a real "monster" than most of the supposed ones Karloff played, but Boris makes him more interesting than just a mere bad guy. Charismatic and street-smart, Gray blackmails his best "customer", Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). The sly Gray enjoys dominating the upper-class Doctor, and the dialogue scenes between Karloff and Daniell are an example of classic screen acting. This film was the last time Boris and Bela Lugosi would work together, and they get to share a creepy farewell.
Brilliant work here by Karloff. He may have been inspired by producer Val Lewton, especially after all the potboilers Boris had done throughout most of the forties.

3. THE WALKING DEAD (1936): No, this isn't some TV show on basic cable. Karloff plays John Elman, an ex-con set up by the mob for murder. Elman is given the chair, and brought back to life by scientist Edmund Gwenn. This is basically a contemporary version of the Frankenstein story--but Karloff turns it in to something much more. Elman literally scares to death the men responsible for his plight. Elman doesn't use threats or aggressive action. All he does is give the bad guys a look at his sad, haunted visage. Karloff can say more with a gaze than most actors can with ten pages of dialogue. Watch Boris in this film and you will believe that Elman has experienced more pain than any human being imaginable. John Elman is the most poignant and spiritual role of Karloff's career.

4. THE MUMMY (1932): Karloff actually gives three performances here: Egyptian High Priest Im-Ho-Tep, a mummy, and Ardath Bey. Three stages in the "life" of a man who is the most romantic of the Universal Monsters. Im-Ho-Tep/Bey wants nothing more than to be reunited with his lost love. Despite a make-up job that restricts his facial movements, Karloff brings out Im-Ho-Tep's longing for his beloved, and his fury at being opposed in his quest. Karloff doesn't rant or rave here; he barely talks above a whisper, and his movements are subtle and compact. Yet one gets the impression that Im-Ho-Tep is someone you don't want to mess with. No matter how outlandish the idea of an ancient mummy coming back to life might be, Karloff makes you believe not by what Im-Ho-Tep does, but by what he doesn't do. Another actor would have done more--Karloff does less. Boris at his creepiest.

5. CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958): Not exactly a famous film in the Karloff canon, but a personal favorite. Karloff is Thomas Bolton, a 19th Century British Doctor searching for a viable anaesthetic. Of course, things go wrong. Like THE BODY SNATCHER, this isn't really a true horror film, but it gives Karloff a great late-career highlight. Even though Bolton is the typical well-meaning scientist who goes awry, Boris makes the doctor more than just a cliche. The fact that Karloff was about 70 when he played the role adds to the viewer's sympathy for Bolton. Karloff runs the gamut here--from petty anger at being laughed at by his fellow doctors to suffering from drug addiction. An actor half Karloff's age probably couldn't have handled what Bolton goes through.

There are many, many other films starring Karloff I could have mentioned. I could have put 20 entries in this list. Suffice to say that Boris Karloff is the greatest actor in the history of horror/science-fiction cinema.