Monday, July 29, 2013

Thelma Todd

On this day in 1906 movie actress Thelma Todd was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She originally studied to be a teacher but after winning a beauty contest in her hometown her looks got her a Hollywood tryout. She made a number of silent features, but after the sound era began Thelma gained fame for her many comedic roles. She co-starred with Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, Joe E. Brown, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and Wheeler & Woolsey. Thelma was also teamed up with Zasu Pitts (and later Patsy Kelly) for a comedy short-subject series at Hal Roach studios.

Thelma Todd was one of the most beautiful women to ever appear in motion pictures. I've often wondered if her attractiveness hurt her in getting non-comedic roles. Think about it this way--if you were a Hollywood actress in the early 1930s, would you want to play opposite someone who looked like Thelma Todd? Whenever Thelma does make an entrance in one her films, she owns the screen--you're certainly not going to overlook her. What made Thelma a great comedienne was that she didn't act like a dumb blonde--she was smart and alluring. She could also handle slapstick yet still be glamorous. She also is one of the few movie stars to have TWO nicknames: "Hot Toddy" and "The Ice Cream Blonde".

Unfortunately most people are aware of Thelma Todd due to the unusual circumstances of her death. On December 16, 1935, Todd was found slumped in the front seat of her car in a closed garage. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning. To this day various wild rumors have circulated about her passing, including stories involving gangsters and former lovers. A fine book by William Donati, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THELMA TODD, makes the case that it was a tragic accident. That may be hard to believe, but Donati's work is exhaustively researched, and is the best source to go to when seeking information on Thelma's personal life.

There are a huge amount of Thelma Todd admirers on the internet, and it's nice to know that the actress is being remembered for her beauty and talent instead of her sad demise.


Thelma Todd and Buster Keaton

Thelma Todd and Charley Chase




Friday, July 26, 2013


(NOTE: IRON MAN THREE is exactly how the title is presented in the film's the way I see it, that's the official title, not IRON MAN 3.)

I finally saw IRON MAN THREE the other day. I liked it, and I thought it was a very entertaining film. I don't know much about the Iron Man comic book character--as I've said before, I'm a DC guy--but in a way that enables me to enjoy the Iron Man movies more, because I don't have to get all geeky and worry about whether all the Marvel Universe details are being properly adhered to.

What makes the Iron Man series stand out is it's not so much the actual superhero that's popular among film audiences, it's the actor who plays him and the way that hero is presented. Some may not like to hear this, but Iron Man has nowhere near the iconic status of say, Superman, Batman, or Spiderman. The three heroes I just mentioned can be played by various actors because each role is more important than the person filling it. When it comes to the cinematic Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark. Trying to make an Iron Man movie without Downey is like making a Indiana Jones movie without Harrison Ford.

What director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey did in the first two Iron Man adventures was establish a superhero who is all too human. Tony Stark is rich and brilliant, but he sure the heck ain't no Bruce Wayne. He has a ton of flaws, but he's also kind of like the cool funny guy in High School that you wanted to hang out with. It's these traits that make Downey's Tony Stark appealing to film goers. Downey has done a masterful job of melding his smart-alecky persona with that of Tony Stark. When you watch Downey act in these films you swear that he's making up the dialogue as he's going along. Downey's Iron Man is, despite his many talents, a guy ordinary people relate to....the type of guy that you could imagine sitting next to at a sports bar and shooting the bull with. (You sure wouldn't think of doing that with Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent.)

That's what makes the Iron Man movies so successful....Downey's ingratiating personality. Yes, the series has spectacle, and action, and tons of FX....but without the human element supplied by the leading man, the movies are just like all the other comic book adaptations out there. Superhero movies are getting to be a dime a dozen. If the viewer does not have a human factor that he or she can react to, all the fight scenes in the world won't be able to make up for it.

IRON MAN THREE is a lot better than the last one. Writer-Director Shane Black sets up a situation where, through most of the story, Tony Stark is stripped of his suits and his gadgets. Stark also has to deal with anxiety attacks from his experiences in THE AVENGERS. Having Stark "damaged", so to speak, is an interesting idea....but of course at the end Tony still winds up relying on all his technology, which kind of devalues the sub-plot.

According to my brother Robert, the film's script is based on a multi-issue Iron Man storyline known as "Extremis". One of Iron Man's most famous foes, the Mandarin, gets showcased in this movie, though not in the way most would expect. IRON MAN THREE appears at first to deal with international terrorism, but unfortunately it toes the politically correct line by revealing the real villains as white-collar Caucasian Americans (Marvel certainly wouldn't want to do anything to hurt the lucrative foreign market, you know).

Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, and Potts' relationship with Tony Stark is another major reason why the Iron Man series works. The character of Potts gets really involved in the climatic battle....probably too much so for some fans.

IRON MAN THREE is a very good summer action movie. Marvel Entertainment has another winner on its hands, and I'm sure they are doing everything they can to keep Robert Downey in the fold. Take away Downey and this film series would lose a lot of it's luster. IRON MAN THREE reminds us that for all the sound & fury of modern film making, you still have to show a certain amount of humanity.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Ten Favorite Films Of All Time

Before we get to the list, I just want to say that these are my personal favorite films of all time....not necessarily what I think are the greatest films of all time. That's a different list, and if enough of you gracious readers would be interested in that, let me know.

1. STAR WARS Directed by George Lucas (Original Theatrical Version)

2. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY Directed by Sergio Leone

3. THE SEARCHERS Directed by John Ford

4. VERTIGO Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

5. METROPOLIS Directed by Fritz Lang

6. THE GENERAL Directed by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman


8. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON Directed by Frank Capra

9. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN Directed by James Whale

10. THE BLUES BROTHERS Directed by John Landis

NOTE: If a film was part of a series, I limited myself to picking just that one entry. That is why, say, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK or THE TWO TOWERS is not on the list.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


While I was attending Monster Bash 2013, I entered a monster movie trivia contest hosted by film historian Tom Weaver. I got 7 out of 8 right, but someone got 8 out of 8, so he got first prize. But it turned out okay, because the first-place winner got a bunch of DVDs that I already owned, and I got a box set of obscure Japanese horror movies released by Criterion's Eclipse line.

I had never seen any of these movies....heck, I had never even heard of the Shochiku motion picture company. I had heard of Toho, of course, because of all their monster movies and their connection with Akira Kirosawa, and I had heard of Daiei, the studio that made the Gamera series.

The first movie I chose to watch was THE X FROM OUTER SPACE. This is a kaiju (giant monster) film, obviously influenced by the likes of Godzilla and Gamera....but it's a very pallid imitation of those creatures.

A space center based near Mt. Fuji is preparing for another mission--despite the fact that all recent attempts have failed. Nevertheless the ship takes off, and soon the crew has to deal with a UFO that one member calls "a half-cooked omelet!" (I think it looks like a flying pot pie.) Strange spores begin to accumulate outside the Earth ship, and the crew takes a sample back home. The sample looks like a rock....but it soon begins to grow into what can only be described as a giant goofy space chicken.

Now, I've seen a ton of monster movies in my time, and I've seen all sorts of silly monsters, but Guilala (as the space chicken is called) beats them all. The picture at the start of this blog can only scratch the surface when it comes to explaining the visual aspect of this monster. Seeing a photo is one thing--watching Guilala in action is quite another. What makes it worse is that whoever is "portraying" Guilala has the suit-acting ability of your drunken cousin wearing a costume at a family birthday party.

Why exactly the spore grows into Guilala, or why it is what it is, never gets adequately explained. Most of the monsters in the Toho kaiju series had some sort of connection with other animals, or Earth ecology (however tenuous that connection may have been). Guilala has no real connection with anything, so even if it did look better, the viewer wouldn't have any real feelings towards it. It's just dumb and goofy (it even acts dumb and goofy). He/She/It has to be one of the worst cinema monsters of all time, ranking right up there with the buzzard from THE GIANT CLAW and some of Gamera's freakiest foes. (And what kind of name is Guilala, anyway? It sounds like an Italian automobile.)

Usually I can just about except anything in an old monster movie, but THE X FROM OUTER SPACE offers nothing to offset the wacky creature. The movie takes forever to get going...all the scenes in the first part of the film are shot as generically as possible. The one thing you can say about Ishiro Honda's many Toho kaiju films is that they moved, and something was always going on. Even the Gamera movies, bizarre as they were, had things happening in them.

Once Guilala gets loose, we get the typical scenes of giant monster destruction, but they are handled as blandly as possible. The special effects for X are nowhere near the quality of Eiji Tsuburaya's finely detailed work for Toho. There's the typical scenes of crowds running away, the typical scenes of various officials and military types discussing what to do....but there's no excitement, there's no rhythm. It's strictly by-the-numbers film making.

And then there's the film's soundtrack, which sounds like a cross between 60s lounge music and the score to a kids' TV show. Once again, I have to go back to Toho. Akira Ifukube's majestic scores for the Toho kaiju series gave those films a powerful background. The music for X just gives you a smirk on your face.

And the grand climax? Jet fighters bomb the monster with a substance called "Guilalaium" (apparently it works like Kryptonite). This results in the creature looking like it's entirely covered in shaving cream. Guilala then shrinks down to it's original rock-like form, and it is then shot into outer space.

As mentioned before, I tend to cut most old monster movies a lot of slack. But it's hard to give THE X FROM OUTER SPACE credit for anything. If the movie went even further in the wacko category--like the Gamera series wound up doing--at least there would be something going on, something to react to. The only out-of-the-box quality X has is the character of a hot, blonde female American crew member, who spends most of her time acting like a typical damsel in distress.

I'm sure some of you would say that all kaiju movies are the same, so what's the big deal? Well, there is a difference between a decent kaiju film and a poor one. THE X FROM OUTER SPACE is the ultimate example of what happens when film makers try to imitate another company's product or genre.

Because this is a Criterion product, the sound & visual quality are excellent for a 1967 foreign film. The movie can be viewed with subtitles or an English-dubbed soundtrack. The only extra is a small booklet which discusses the history of Shochiku Films, and gives some background on THE X FROM OUTER SPACE.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Veronica Carlson

The real highlight I had at this year's Monster Bash was meeting the lady who is considered by many to be the greatest of all of Hammer Films' actresses--Veronica Carlson.

Veronica Carlson actually only appeared in three Hammer movies: DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, and THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. But those few roles enabled Veronica to have a huge cult following, and massive popularity among Hammer aficionados. Certainly her beauty had something to do with it, and the fact that her characters had a natural intelligence and likability that other Hammer ladies lacked. 

I've spent most of my life watching Hammer movies, so the chance to meet someone who starred in them, especially someone who acted alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, was a big treat. I've heard several fans talk about how nice and approachable Veronica is, and I can verify this without question. She is one of the most gracious people I have had the pleasure to have met, and she made me feel like a was a member of her family.

I made sure that I visited her table all three days I attended Monster Bash. I got two different autographed photos--one of Veronica with Peter Cushing and one of her with Christopher Lee. She kept telling me I looked like Tom Hanks (I don't think Mr. Hanks would have liked that) and my reply to that was, "Ma' can call me whatever you want."

While at Monster Bash Veronica was the subject of a Q & A session moderated by Scott Goettel. The room was packed, and Veronica was genuinely moved by the warmth of the crowd. She talked about how she became an actress and her discovery by Hammer's Chairman, James Carreras. Veronica was very proud of her work in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, but she felt disappointed in THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. She felt quite rightly that the film did not have the proper Gothic aspect.

Veronica also related her experiences on acting with Peter Cushing in THE GHOUL, a film made some years later after Veronica's time at Hammer. By the time of THE GHOUL Cushing was in despair over the death of his wife, and it was very touching to hear Veronica express her personal feelings toward Peter.

I know this sounds strange, but I'm kind of glad that Veronica Carlson got out of acting to raise a family. Seeing her interact with people, and the kindness she showed toward everyone, made me realize that she's far too decent to be involved in the modern entertainment industry. You hear so many stories about performers coming to a bad end or being involved in bad circumstances, and thankfully Veronica Carlson was able to avoid all of that.

Meeting Veronica Carlson exceeded all my expectations. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to meet her again in the future.

Veronica at her Q & A session at Monster Bash

Monster Bash 2013

On the weekend of July 19-21, I attended Monster Bash 2013 in Mars, Pennsylvania (not to far away from Pittsburgh). It was my first time at a Monster Bash, and I had a great experience. If you are someone who is a huge fan of classic horror films, I highly recommend going to a future Monster Bash if you are able to.

There was a ton of movie memorabilia on sale (which I tried to avoid, considering all the money I spent on a hotel room, gas, tolls, etc.). The main reason I went was to meet the impressive lineup of autograph guests. I think it's pretty cool to encounter people you've watched on TV or the movies since you were a kid.

One of the most interesting guests I met was Donnie Dunagan. He was a child star in the 1930s. His most famous on-screen appearance was in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, as the young child of Basil Rathbone's Baron Frankenstein (which means Donnie was the REAL Son of Frankenstein). Mr. Dunagan was also in TOWER OF LONDON....and he was the voice of Bambi! After his acting career he became a U. S. Marine.

I also met John Saxon, who was in dozens of films and TV shows. He co-starred with Clint Eastwood in JOE KIDD, and he was in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but probably his most remembered role was fighting alongside Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON.

I also met several writers and film historians, including Greg Mank, Tom Weaver, Leonard J. Kohl, "Scary Monsters" publisher Dennis Druktenis, and "Monsters From The Vault" publisher Jim Clatterbaugh.

I also had a chance to talk to Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. If you've read some of my blogs on recent Hammer Blu-rays, you'll know that it's Ballyhoo which is responsible for the fine extras and featurettes that are on those discs. Griffith presented three new documentaries from his company at Monster Bash: one on the making of THIS ISLAND EARTH, one on the Universal career of director Jack Arnold, and one of the making of THE MOLE PEOPLE. All three were very well done and hopefully they will be available for everyone to see soon.

Geri & Jill Howard, the daughter-in-law and granddaughter of Shemp Howard, were at the Bash and I got to meet them and tell them that I've been watching their relatives my entire life. They also did a Q & A session where they told some very interesting stories about Shemp and the Howard family.

Frank Dello Stritto held a forum in which he gave out to the crowd mimeographed copies of 1940 census information concerning such horror stars as Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr., Atwill, etc. It was a fascinating talk....looking at those sheets made you realize that these were real people with real lives...but I had to wonder about whether the people listed on these sheets would have really wanted this info being discussed at a monster movie convention years later.

There was also an Abbott & Costello tribute act. For those wondering what Abbott & Costello impersonators would be doing at a monster movie convention, just remember that A & C met Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde...Bud & Lou fought more monsters than Peter Cushing! The guys were great (I wish I knew their real names to give them proper credit), and of course they performed "Who's On First". They were dead perfect...these guys had the routines down cold.

There were so many other things I did (and a number of things I didn't get to do), but I think you get the idea about how much stuff goes on at a Monster Bash. There was one other special person I met at the Bash...but that will be the subject of an entirely different blog post.

John Saxon and I
The pre-eminent classic horror film historian, Greg Mank
Bud & Lou!!
Cortlandt Hull's Witch's Dungeon exhibit at Monster Bash
Wax figure of Hammer's version of the Phantom of the Opera
Donnie Dunagan autograph
John Saxon autograph


Thursday, July 18, 2013


Synapse Films' latest entry in their Hammer Horror Collection is HANDS OF THE RIPPER. This film does not have the major reputation of some of the other Hammer classics, due to the fact that most Americans have probably never seen it.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER was made in 1971, when Hammer Films was undergoing a transitional period. A number of the usual Hammer writers & directors no longer worked regularly for the company, and several new concepts & variations on the typical Gothic thriller theme were being tried out. HANDS is most unusual in that it deals with a female "monster" who isn't really evil in the traditional sense. The casting also is different in that there's no Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, or even a familiar face like Michael Ripper's. The movie mixes the legend of Jack the Ripper with 19th Century psychoanalysis, and one has to wonder whether audiences of the time where disappointed that it wasn't a more "normal" Hammer movie.

The film has a pretty shocking beginning--a little girl watches as her mother is stabbed to death by her father....who happens to be Jack the Ripper! The story continues years later as the girl (now played by Angharad Rees) is under the care of a conniving phony psychic. After a fake seance attended by a Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter), a series of events causes Anna to go mad and violently murder the psychic. Pritchard believes Anna may be the killer, but convinces the police to let him take charge of her. Pritchard hopes to use Freudian techniques to find out why Anna kills, and eventually cure her condition. You can probably figure out how that's gonna work.

The script is a bit vague on whether Anna is actually possessed by her father, or just influenced by her childhood trauma. It leaves the choice up to the viewer, which is refreshing for a change.

A lot of people think of Hammer movies as cheesy fun, but HANDS OF THE RIPPER is anything but. The tone is tragic, downbeat, and unsettling. Angharad Rees is not the typical voluptuous Hammer hottie--she's more like a confused child. The idea that she is capable of such monstrous acts makes her more frightening than most of Hammer's supernatural creatures. You can't really call Eric Porter's Dr. Pritchard the story's "hero"--Pritchard knows full well that Anna is dangerous, yet he continues to shelter her and cover up her killings when he has to. His interest in her seems more than just clinical--even though Pritchard is old enough to be Anna's grandfather, he seems almost attracted to her. Another aspect to Pritchard's character is that he appears uneasy around his son's fiancee (played by Jane Merrow), who is blind. Rees and Porter give excellent performances, and they work very well together.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER does feature one big English Gothic cliche: dozens and dozens of prostitutes. Being that this is a "Ripper" picture I guess one shouldn't be surprised. But if you had to learn history from British horror movies, you'd be absolutely convinced that 98% of all women who lived in London between the years 1837 and 1901 were ladies of the evening.

One thing that really stands out about HANDS OF THE RIPPER is the gory murders--every single one of them is a violent FX setpiece. Hammer of course always had a reputation for gore and violence, but HANDS takes it to another level. Because of the explicit killings HANDS was almost never shown on American TV, and most versions of it have been edited in one way or another. Synapse's version runs 85 minutes, and apparently has all the gruesome footage intact. I say apparently because some sources claim that there are still a few gore snippets missing. If you decide not to buy this Blu-ray because of a second or two of footage, then you're crazier than I am.

The picture & sound quality for this Blu-ray is up to Synapse's usual standards. HANDS was made at Pinewood Studios, and because of this it avoids having the somewhat tacky look that most Hammer films from the early 70s have. The production design of HANDS OF THE RIPPER is almost on a level with the Hammer classics of the late 50s and early 60s.

Like the other Synapse Hammer Blu-rays, this one comes loaded with extras. Ballyhoo Productions comes through again with more impressive material. THE DEVIL'S BLOODY PLAYTHING: POSSESSED BY HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a 28-minute documentary concerning the making of the film, with on-screen comments from Hammer experts Richard Klemensen, Wayne Kinsey, Kim Newman, Tim Lucas, and Joe Dante. SLAUGHTER OF INNOCENCE: THE EVOLUTION OF HAMMER GORE is a motion still gallery made up of various shots of gruesome makeups from a number of Hammer movies. Most hardcore Hammer fans will be familiar with most of these stills. There is an audio clip of the specially filmed U.S. TV introduction, which was made to fill in for all the cuts made to the killing scenes, and there is also a HANDS OF THE RIPPER still gallery, the film's U.S. trailer, and some TV spots.

Once again Synapse does a fine job with a lesser-known Hammer chiller. HANDS OF THE RIPPER is worth seeing for fans of the genre, but it's not a creature feature type of monster movie. It's a very good film, and very well made....but because of the story, it's the kind of movie you admire more than you love or enjoy.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Now....that's more like it.

PACIFIC RIM is a real Summer Movie. It isn't anything more than what it is--giant robots battling giant monsters. It's not a sequel, or a remake, or a reboot, or a "known" commodity--a very rare thing in this day and age. There's no trending "movie star" being paid $20 million to head the cast list, and there's no sense of pretentiousness. It's pure old-fashioned genre film making, and it's far worthier than all the other "important" titles being released this season.

Writer-Director Guillermo Del Toro (HELLBOY, PAN'S LABYRINTH) sets up the situation quickly and efficiently. The Earth is being plagued by giant monsters, referred to as "kaiju", which have come from a dimensional breach deep in the Pacific Ocean. The nations of the world have banded together and built giant robots, called "jaegers", to battle the horrific beasts. The script deals with how the jaegers are operated in a sufficient enough manner to allow the movie to get to the good stuff--the fight scenes.

Del Toro is of course making his version of a Toho Studios Japanese monster movie. There are no men wearing monster suits, but there are several other Toho-style elements. Like almost every one of famed director Ishiro Honda's many Kaiju films, various races and countries have to learn to work together to deal with the threat against mankind. The giant robots hark back to good ol' Jet Jaguar, and the kaiju of PACIFIC RIM each have their own different powers and abilities. (Unfortunately, we never really get all that good of a look at most of the kaiju....just about all of the fight scenes are staged during rainstorms, an old FX trick to make the CGI look better.)

One of the most important Toho-like elements is the inclusion of a hot Japanese female lead, and Rinko Kikuchi fills that role admirably as Mako. She's the most impressive out of all the human cast, and she has a chance to be the 21st Century version of Kumi Mizuno.
As for the rest of the "real" cast, it's filled by actors that I don't really have all that much knowledge about. The character types are pretty one-dimensional--hot-shot rebellious pilot, stern but supportive military leader, nerdy comic-relief scientists--but they are enough to serve the plot. The main drawback is that too much time is spent on the geeky doctors. Just like the comic actors in the Toho movies, their comedy is more annoying than funny.

As in STAR WARS, Del Toro keeps the human roles simple to enhance the background of the world he is creating. The production design and art direction of PACIFIC RIM make this not-too-distant future Earth very credible. Even though the movie is filled with CGI, there's a texture and a reality to all the machines and monsters. PACIFIC RIM is one of those movies you want to see again just to catch everything you may have missed the first time.

As for the battles between the jaegers and the kaiju, there's plenty of them...but Del Toro keeps each one inventive enough to avoid a "here we go again" mentality. This is one picture where you will definitely get your money's worth if you are looking for spectacle.

What I like most about PACIFIC RIM is that Guillermo Del Toro isn't trying to make a statement or a message....he's making an exciting adventure, period. The problem with a lot of big-time summer movies is that they try to act like they're NOT summer movies--but they still want you to buy the toys and the Happy Meals. PACIFIC RIM doesn't have a veneer of self-importance. It's the ultimate "big kid" movie....and I wish there was a lot more like it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


(NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that Josh Kennedy is a Facebook friend of mine, and he asked me to review this film.)

THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS can definitely be described as a "personal" project--it was written, produced, and directed by one man, Josh Kennedy. Young Mr. Kennedy also happens to be the composer of the soundtrack, and the film's leading man. His magnum opus is a homage to the 1950s-1960s style of low-budget science-fiction cinema.

After a stentorian-sounding prologue, the story begins in the small town of Santa Mira, located in Vandorf County (did you read that, Hammer fans?). The town's water tower has mysteriously toppled over, and Sheriff Joseph Kerwin (not Curwen) is at a loss to explain it. Soon, various citizens begin disappearing, and the Sheriff joins forces with pretty scientist Dr. Carla Joyce (Ayssette Munoz), who has some theories of her own. These theories involve an ancient creature known as "Starranus Gigantus", and it doesn't take too long to realize that the theory has become fact.

The creature (which is a giant starfish) eventually makes it's way to New York, New York....and there's a climax involving Central Park, a bunch of helicopters, and the Statue of Liberty.

THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS is not meant to be a "message" movie. The production's creator is someone who has a great love and respect for classic fantastic cinema. There is an undercurrent of humor in this picture, but it isn't the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER type of humor. You laugh with the movie, not at it. There's no sense of "Hey, isn't this stupid?" The tone is affectionate instead of snarky. This movie wants you to like it, instead of feeling superior to it.

What helps is that Josh Kennedy has a encyclopedic knowledge of the genre he's working in. Kennedy's Sheriff Joe is obviously the John Agar/Grant Williams type (but a bit more articulate). Ayssette Munoz's attractive & intelligent Dr. Joyce is the equivalent to a Mara Corday or a Faith Domergue. There are a ton of references to other classic films--THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, JAWS, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, KING KONG, various Hitchcock titles....and there's even a Peter Cushing dialogue quote. But these are always within the framework of the story--they don't hit you upside the head with their "cleverness".

MENACE is in black & white, and it feels like an early 50s sci-fi flick from Universal. There's no shaky camera work, or music video style editing. (Thank God the director knows how to use a tripod.) There obviously isn't much of budget, but one marvels at the creativity which came out of this situation. A perfect example is the big New York climax, in which Kennedy took a real life incident and incorporated it into his story.

THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS is about 90 minutes long. There are some early character-defining scenes that may drag a little, but this isn't a major concern. Ironically the same night I watched MENACE I later saw Svengoolie present THE BEGINNING OF THE END, which has some similarities. I have to honestly say that Josh Kennedy did a better job than Bert I. Gordon did.

I have to admit that I am biased concerning this project. It's just refreshing to see a young person who has such a love and enthusiasm for the horror and science-fiction genre. Josh Kennedy is obviously very talented, and I have a feeling we'll be hearing from him in the future.

If you would like to have more information on THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS, and how you can see it, you can contact Josh Kennedy at

Here's a link for a THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS trailer:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Evelyn Ankers & Lon Chaney Jr.

Evelyn Ankers & Lon Chaney Jr. represent one of the most unusual Dynamic Duos in Classic Film. They appeared together in a number of thrillers made by Universal Studios in the 1940s. Both of them starred in many other Universal monster movies throughout the decade, and they are generally considered to be the King & Queen of World War II-era horror films.

According to most sources Ankers and Lon Jr. did not get along too well. The beautiful Ankers was born in Chile to British parents, and she always had an aristocratic bearing about her. Lon Chaney Jr. was more of a blue-collar type of individual, even though he was the son of true Hollywood royalty.

It has been said that Lon Jr. referred to his frequent co-star as "Evelyn Shankers". Apparently Chaney may have been jealous of Ankers in some way. Despite this one never senses any animosity between them during their performances together, or the many publicity photos they posed for.

Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. while making THE WOLF MAN

Ankers and Chaney co-starred in six films: THE WOLF MAN, NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF DRACULA, WEIRD WOMAN, and THE FROZEN GHOST. They also made separate cameo appearances in two Universal All-Star variety movies: CRAZY HOUSE and FOLLOW THE BOYS.

I have never seen NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE. The film does not seem to have been released under any home video format. What is known about the film is that Lon Jr. and co-star Broderick Crawford engaged in some serious hell-raising during the filming, which no doubt caused some frustration for Miss Ankers.

Apparently Lon Jr. and Broderick Crawford liked stronger stuff than this.
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN was made after the huge success of THE WOLF MAN. Lon Jr. got to play the Monster, and Evelyn was cast as Elsa Frankenstein, daughter of Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein. They have almost no scenes together in this one. At one point the Monster tries to carry Elsa off, but he doesn't get too far.

Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. discussing world affairs on the set of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN
SON OF DRACULA is another film where Chaney and Ankers barely interact with one another. Chaney's Dracula is more interested in Ankers' on-screen sister, played by Louise Allbritton. It's Allbritton who is the real star of the film. The viewer assumes that Ankers' character will play a bigger part in the story, such as becoming a rival for Allbritton or a presumed victim for Dracula. But Evelyn winds up being almost ignored as the film reaches it's climax.

The next two Ankers-Chaney pairings were part of Universal's "Inner Sanctum" series of strange mysteries. Theses movies almost always get a bad rap from horror fans. The Inner Sanctums usually cast Lon Jr. as a sophisticated, academic leading man--a role the younger Chaney wasn't really suited for.

WEIRD WOMAN is probably the best of the Inner Sanctums. In this one Chaney is a college professor (!) dealing with what appears to be a murderous voodoo outbreak. Evelyn Ankers steals the show this time from Lon Jr. as a sly and devious former flame. Seeing Ankers playing a "bad girl" for a change is a bit disconcerting, but she does it very well.

THE FROZEN GHOST was the final teaming between Lon and Evelyn. Chaney plays a hypnotist who goes into seclusion when he thinks he's killed someone during his act. Ankers plays his fiancee and assistant. The movie isn't all that great, but it is an example of how well Ankers and Chaney did while playing a couple.

I've saved THE WOLF MAN for last because it is the one movie that defines Ankers and Chaney as a "Dynamic Duo". Chaney of course plays the afflicted Lawrence Talbot, and Ankers plays the Welsh girl who catches Talbot's eye.

THE WOLF MAN was the perfect role for Lon Chaney Jr. He's a likable, ordinary type of guy...not an intellectual, but someone who's decent and well-meaning. He's also someone who is the victim of a terrible circumstance not of his making. The audience immediately feels sympathy for Talbot, and a major reason why is how Evelyn Ankers responds to his plight.

Not many people take note of Evelyn Ankers' performance in THE WOLF MAN, but they should. At first her character is taken aback by Talbot's attention to her, and then she starts to slowly warm to him. Ankers' reactions to the situation are a bit different than the usual horror movie heroine--she doesn't fall right in love with Talbot, she instead seems more concerned about him as a fellow human being. The fact that Ankers stands up for Talbot later in the story and tries to help him makes the viewer look more favorably upon him.

The doomed relationship between Lon's Larry Talbot and Evelyn's Gwen Conliffe in THE WOLF MAN is one of the most famous in classic horror film history. If Chaney and Ankers had never made another film together, their pairing in what is probably the greatest of all werewolf movies would have made then a classic duo. The scenes of Chaney in his Wolf Man makeup stalking Ankers in a mist-shrouded forest will live on forever in the annals of fantastic cinema.

Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. may have been two totally different people, and they may not have liked each other very much, but they will always be linked in the minds of monster movie fans everywhere. It's ironic that this "Dynamic Duo" are more known for their off-screen relationship than their cinematic adventures. If Ankers and Chaney were alive today, how would they respond to the fame of their "partnership"? Maybe it's best that we don't know.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Few Thoughts On The Hollywood Summer

When I was a kid, I looked upon the summer movie season with great anticipation. That anticipation was partly fueled by preview articles from publications like "Starlog" and "Cinefantastique", which made all the various upcoming films look like must-see events.

You never have the same feelings about certain things as you do when you are younger. The summer movie season just doesn't have the same importance as it once did--and this year's summer is distinctly underwhelming. The modern sound-bite culture that we live in has reduced the shelf life of the average big-budget blockbuster to that of a generic loaf of bread. A major franchise movie is hyped up for weeks and weeks...and a couple days after it has come out, it's just about been forgotten. A lot of that has to do with the movies themselves (STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS is a perfect example), but even films that are successful financially and critically don't have much staying power anymore.

The mainstream media's obsession with a movie's gross has caused titles to branded flops after just one week...heck, even after just one DAY of release. When the general populace only reads the sound-bite headline, and that headline says that Movie X is a total bomb because it only made $200 million instead of $250 million....what chance does any non-franchise, non-tentpole feature have?

When I hear the term "summer movie", I think of JAWS, STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK....things like that. Now we have....RED 2??? Is there any particular reason to make a RED 2? Was there any particular reason to make RED in the first place?

And THE LONE RANGER. An 8 year old kid could have told you that this movie was pure trash just by watching a preview trailer. The Disney Corporation is a gazillion dollar concern. Goodness knows how many overpaid white collar executives they have working for them. Somehow, somebody green lighted this project....more than likely multiple people. And why? I mean...come on.

I know that if anybody reads this blog, I'm going to get reactions like, "You just don't like anything that's new, Dan! You don't like anything that's cool and trendy!! You have to get with the times!!" Well, you just go on down to your local Redbox and get yourself a copy of BURT WONDERSTONE, and may God go with you.

There's still hope (but not in the shape of a Hobbit...that won't come out for a while). PACIFIC RIM looks interesting, and there's always the chance that some undervalued movie will break through and surprise everyone. But then again....I saw a commercial for R.I.P.D., and I honestly thought it was a made-up movie or a skit. I could not seriously believe that this "film" was actually made.

So...what's the best thing to come out of Hollywood this summer, so far?

Yasiel Puig.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Fourth Of July

In honor of Independence Day, here's a collection of American-inspired images from various classic films.

Thelma Todd as Betsy Ross
James Stewart and the Lincoln Memorial in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
John Ford and Monument Valley
Chicago as seen in THE UNTOUCHABLES
New York as seen in THE GODFATHER PART II
San Francisco as seen in VERTIGO