Sunday, August 25, 2013


Last week was the 93rd birthday of one of the few real living screen legends, Maureen O'Hara. I was thinking about writing a blog post about one of her films, but I couldn't decide which. I didn't want to pick one of her more famous roles, such as the ones she played for John Ford. I decided to pick a movie which has sort of fallen through the cracks, and which happens to be a personal favorite of mine. It's also the last theatrical feature that Maureen O'Hara ever appeared in: Chris Columbus' ONLY THE LONELY, produced by John Hughes.

O'Hara plays Rose Muldoon, a part specifically created for her by writer-director Columbus (whose previous film before this was the mega-hit HOME ALONE). Rose is the very Irish-Catholic--and very opinionated--mother of lonely single guy Danny (John Candy), a Chicago cop. Danny stills lives with his mother, and is a bit dominated by her. This complicates Danny's new-found romance with a shy funeral home cosmetologist named Theresa (Ally Sheedy).

The generic classification for ONLY THE LONELY would be "romantic comedy", but it's more than that. The story deals with loneliness, family guilt, the quest for a so-called normal life, and the pressure a single adult has to deal with. Being a single guy myself, I'm familiar with a lot of the situations presented in this movie, which doesn't say much for my life (maybe it says TOO much).

When Maureen O'Hara made this film in 1990, she had not acted for the movies in nearly 20 years. You wouldn't know that by her performance. She still had a great screen presence, and whenever she's in a scene she dominates, and not just because her character is a bit overbearing. It would have been easy to just make Rose Muldoon out to be nothing more than a harridan. But O'Hara and Columbus turn Rose into a fully dimensional human being--she's certainly not the easiest person to get along with, but you learn to understand why she acts the way she does. In her own way Rose is just as lonely as Danny.

"The Protestants and the Jews go to the psychiatrists. We go to the priests."
--Rose Muldoon

She's also extremely politically incorrect, which provides the movie with most of it's humor. But even though Rose says a lot of insulting things, you never wind up hating her--an example of the talent of Maureen O'Hara. If an actress with lesser stature than O'Hara had played the role, Rose would have been very unattractive to an audience.

The late John Candy made a lot of comedies in the late 80s-early 90s, and more than a few of them were pretty bad (ever try watching WHO'S HARRY CRUMB?). Candy stepped up his game, however, when he was affiliated with John Hughes (see PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES and UNCLE BUCK). Danny Muldoon is probably Candy's best-acted role. Danny isn't a matinee idol, but he's not wacky, either...he's a nice, ordinary guy that the audience wants to see happy. What's impressive about ONLY THE LONELY is that Danny and Theresa are not portrayed as pathetic or nerdy...they're just two people who have yet to make a special connection with someone. Ally Sheedy is a bit de-glamorized in the leading lady role, but as so often happens in romantic comedies, she gets better looking as the story progresses.

Special mention must be made of Danny and Theresa's first date. It's held on the field at an empty Comiskey Park. This is the original Comiskey Park, soon to be torn down (now you know why I like this movie so much). How was Danny able to pull this off? One of the running gags of the film is that because Danny is a police officer, he knows nearly everybody, and therefore is able to call in a number of extraordinary favors. As Danny explains it, "Sometimes it's good to be a cop." Obviously Chris Columbus and John Hughes wanted to pay tribute to the Baseball Palace of the World before it would be destroyed (1990 was Comiskey Park's last year in service), but the scene makes sense story-wise. Danny and Theresa are Comiskey Park-type of people, not Wrigley Field-type of people (believe me, there is a difference). I do have to point out that during the Comiskey date John Candy is drinking Old Style, a beer more commonly associated with the Cubs instead of the White Sox.

The supporting cast of ONLY THE LONELY includes Kevin Dunn as Danny's annoying lawyer brother (when Danny punches his brother in the face, you want to stand up and cheer), Jim Belushi as Danny's friend and police partner Sal, a married guy who keeps telling Danny he's crazy to give up his freedom, and the one and only Anthony Quinn as Danny & Rose's neighbor Nick, who tries to romance Mrs. Muldoon. It's great to see legends like O'Hara and Quinn tangle with each another, just like they did forty years ago. There's also a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo by the HOME ALONE kid himself, Macaulay Culkin, as one of Danny's nephews.

ONLY THE LONELY was filmed in Chicago (the climatic train station scenes were shot in Niles, Michigan). For some reason Chicago does not have the reputation of being a movie town like, say, San Francisco or New York. But the Windy City always looks great on the big screen--any movie filmed there seems to gain an extra dimension. Chris Columbus avoids for the most part using the typical Chicago landmarks. The City of Big Shoulders has a quirky, working-class kind of vibe that's hard to explain, but easy to recognize. ONLY THE LONELY definitely has this vibe--you believe that all the characters are Chicago citizens, instead of just actors trying to "act" Chicago.

ONLY THE LONELY is what is usually described as "a nice little film". It's not fall down and laugh funny, and the situations are true to life. Despite being a nice little film, it's filled with A list talent in front of and behind the camera. Even the film's composer is the great Maurice Jarre, who gives Maureen O'Hara her own Irish musical motif. The studio that released ONLY THE LONELY was Twentieth Century-Fox--back in 1991 major studios still produced and released nice little pictures.
Nowadays ONLY THE LONELY would be produced independently, and it would star actors you've never heard of, and it would be filmed in Toronto or Vancouver instead of Chicago.

ONLY THE LONELY provides a magnificent final chapter in the brilliant film career of Maureen O'Hara. It proves that even coming out of retirement she could still be a forceful personality and play a memorable role. ONLY THE LONELY isn't remembered much today, probably because it's poignant and moving, rather than uproariously hilarious. It should get more attention, and if you are a Maureen O'Hara fan, it's something you need to see if you haven't already.


John Candy and Ally Sheedy at the original Comiskey Park

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Gilbert Taylor

British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor died yesterday at the age of 99. Taylor's resume of credits as director of photography includes such titles as ICE COLD IN ALEX, DR. STRANGELOVE, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, THE OMEN, and the 1980 version of FLASH GORDON.

Taylor worked with director Roman Polanski on REPULSION, CUL-DE-SAC, and MACBETH. He worked for Alfred Hitchcock on FRENZY, a movie that I just happened to watch not that long ago. There's some amazing camera moves in that.

Taylor's most famous credit is the original STAR WARS. Taylor and George Lucas did not get along too well during the shooting--STAR WARS was filmed mostly in England, and the British crew disliked Lucas' working methods. Despite that Taylor was able to contribute to an iconic cinematic look that changed films forever.

The best cinematographers are like a chameleon, even more so than a director or a screenwriter. The cinematographer has to change his methods from picture to picture--he or she can't film everything the same exact way. The best tribute I can give to Gilbert Taylor is that the films he worked on don't follow a discernible pattern, and they all didn't belong to the same genre. They all had a different visual sense. If you watched DR. STRANGELOVE, FRENZY, and STAR WARS back to back, you'd never think that the same man was in charge of photography on all three.


Next weekend marks the beginning of the 2013 College Football season. As some of you already know, I was born in South Bend, Indiana, and I've lived in this area most of my entire life. Because of that I have a unique perspective on the University of Notre Dame football program. I did not attend Notre Dame (I was too poor and too dumb) but I consider myself one of the "subway alumni"--a term for all those fans who faithfully root on all of Notre Dame's athletic teams, even though they have no real connection to the university whatsoever.

Being a life-long Notre Dame fan means you are exposed very early to all the various myths and legends surrounding the Fighting Irish. Most of these myths and legends are just that. Nevertheless, I can't tell you how many times I've heard a sports commentator pass on a Notre Dame "fact" that has as much reality as a Star Trek episode. And once you take into account that Notre Dame is probably the most famous Catholic institution in the USA, the myths gain even more power. Even today, several books (written by authors who should know better) present most of the Notre Dame tales as truth. If you want to know the real story behind the ND legends, the best volume to read is Murray Sperber's Shake Down The Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football.

One of the many things that perpetuates the Notre Dame legacy is the film KNUTE ROCKNE ALL-AMERICAN, produced in 1940 by Warner Brothers. To many folks, this movie contains all the knowledge they have about the iconic ND football coach.

When Knute Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931, he was one of the most famous men in America. The Notre Dame team that he coached had won the last two college football national championships, and Rockne was one of the first multi-media stars--he was a spokesman for the Studebaker Motor Company, he had a newspaper column (mostly ghostwritten) that was syndicated all over the country, he had a chain of coaching schools, and he was an in-demand banquet speaker. Rockne's sudden death was the equivalent of a trending news story of today.

Throughout the 30s, there were numerous attempts to start up a Rockne film biography. The priests who ran Notre Dame and Rockne's widow Bonnie were not very receptive to the idea (unless they had final say over aspects of the story). Finally the Warner studio was able to get the project started, with Mrs. Rockne having final approval over the script.

Nearly everyone involved wanted Spencer Tracy to play Rockne, but the actor was under contract to MGM. The next most popular choice was James Cagney--but according to Murray Sperber's book, the Notre Dame Fathers were not too pleased that Cagney had supported the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. (The Spanish Catholic Church had been in opposition to the Loyalists.) The University and Mrs. Rockne had final say on the casting of the lead role, so Warners chose Pat O'Brien instead.

O'Brien was a very underrated character actor who had been working at Warners for years. O'Brien was at his best playing working-class authority figures--cops, priests, and of course, football coaches. Today O'Brien is mainly remembered for playing Knute Rockne, and it's hard to conceive that anyone else could have filled the role.

KNUTE ROCKNE ALL-AMERICAN is a prime example of the Warner Bros. style. It's filled with montages, spinning newspaper headlines, smooth transitions, fast-paced editing--the story moves like lightning. Just about all the Notre Dame legends up till that time are covered--Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais practicing the forward pass on the beach at Cedar Point; Rockne and Dorais using their new-found skills to upset the powerful Army team; Rockne coming up with the Notre Dame shift after watching chorus girls dance at a vaudeville show; and of course, the most controversial ND legend of all...George Gipp.

Even people who have never seen this film know that George Gipp was played by Ronald Reagan. Gipp actually occupies a very small part of the story--right after Reagan/Gipp starts coughing, the poor guy's already on his deathbed. It's generally assumed that Reagan became a star because of Gipp--but he's barely in the film, just long enough to make an impression. The script and Reagan give Gipp a cocky, devil-may-care attitude--perhaps hinting at the complexity of the real Gipp. (The actual George, who never called himself "The Gipper", spent way more time at the pool hall then he did the classroom).

The cinematic Gipp asks of Rockne the most famous deathbed request in American history, and of course Rockne uses this at just the right moment--years later, during a game in which Army is beating ND. Both scenes still hold up very well today, even though they are mostly fiction. I'm sure other ND fans won't like to hear this, but there's a lot of fiction in KNUTE ROCKNE. Knute and Dorais certainly used the forward pass, but they didn't invent it. And the coach didn't get his shift from a chorus line. However, because the movie is put together so well, and moves so quickly, you don't really have time to think about things.

Director Lloyd Bacon (42ND STREET) had worked at Warner Bros. for years, and he knew the studio style like the back of his hand. The production team did some location shooting at Notre Dame, and if you are familiar with the campus today you'll notice when watching these scenes how empty the campus looks back then. There's also a fair amount of actual Notre Dame football game newsreel footage edited into the story. But because everything's in black & white, and the camera is so far away from the field, the footage could be of Notre Dame playing any team at any time.

Pat O'Brien does a fine job as Rockne. He's stuck with a makeup job that could have been done better, but O'Brien has the mannerisms, body language, and speech pattern of Rockne down pat. O'Brien is at his best when he's giving one of the coach's patented pep's during these scenes that O'Brien's performance as Rockne is uncanny.

One does wish that the story had made Rockne more of a human figure. Of course, with Mrs. Rockne having story approval, nothing untoward was going to be suggested of the man. None of his off-campus money-making activities are acknowledged, nor is his sometimes contentious relationship with the university. At one point in the film, O'Brien/Rockne says, "I'll never leave Notre Dame". The real Rockne did try to leave ND on more than one occasion, usually because the priests didn't agree to something he wanted.

I'm not debunking these Notre Dame legends to make the school look bad, or disillusion anyone. There's a famous line of dialogue from John Ford's THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That line is a perfect description of how the history of Notre Dame football has been covered over the years.

There's nothing wrong with being inspired by, or enjoying movies like KNUTE ROCKNE. But when a biopic ignores or fudges historical facts, that should be pointed out as well. A major problem with movies "based on a true story" is that viewers believe what they see on the screen--and they don't bother to follow up and find out the real story. Most people don't want to know the facts behind "uplifting" films, because those facts might make them feel bad, or go against their political or religious beliefs. Whenever I discuss historical movies with someone I'm sometimes accused of being "too technical"....but when you are dealing with actual fact, I don't think there is such a thing as being too technical. Once again, movies are not real life--a movie script has to fit a certain pattern, and any person's life is far too complex to be conveyed properly in a couple of hours.

Is KNUTE ROCKNE ALL AMERICAN a 100% accurate depiction of the famed coach's life? Maybe not. But this picture wasn't made for's a product of the classic Hollywood studio system, which didn't go out of it's way to make audiences feel bad. I love watching this movie, and I love seeing Pat O'Brien in the title role (especially when he's giving a speech). There's nothing wrong with printing the legend every once in a long as you don't do it all the time.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Inmates Have Taken Over Arkham Asylum

I'm sure everyone by now has heard that Ben Affleck will be Batman in the upcoming Superman-Batman DC movie/project/re-boot. And I'm sure everyone can guess how I feel about this. I'm not much of a Ben Affleck fan. Is it because I'm just a dumb goofy-looking guy from Indiana and Affleck is one of those left-wing beautiful people that is so beloved by the mainstream media? I"ll fully admit that has a lot to do with it. But when it comes to Batman, it's personal. Batman is my favorite all-time comic-book character. I feel as if I "know" Batman....and Ben Affleck ain't Batman. (Yes, I'm well aware that Affleck has already played a big-screen superhero....but in all honesty, does anybody other than Jennifer Garner care about DAREDEVIL?)

Apparently a fair number of people on the internet feel the same way I do. So why would Warner/DC cast Affleck in the first place? In my opinion, I think there's a few factors involved. So let's look at each of the relevant factors one-by-one:

1. The ARGO factor

One reason for picking Affleck may be is that he is now considered a "respectable" film maker, due to his involvement with the Best Picture Oscar winning ARGO. The problem with this is that we live in a sound-bite society, and Oscar buzz doesn't have much of a shelf life. Remember the guy who starred in THE ARTIST? Have you heard anything about him lately?

Of course I realize that Affleck is a lot more famous that the guy from THE ARTIST. But, what we should really be asking is...what does ARGO have to do with Batman? Okay, Affleck may now be at the supposed top of the "A" list....but how does that qualify him to play Bruce Wayne?

One of the things I kept reading on the internet last night from Ben's defenders is that "ARGO proved he's a major talent, so he should get this chance, etc." But, once again, what does that have to do with Batman? Martin Scorsese directed a Best Picture winner. So did James Cameron. Should they be allowed to play Batman?

This idea that Affleck now "deserves" to play the Caped Crusader because he's a supposed big thing now shows how much the film industry is beholden to comic books. It used to be that if you directed a film that won the Best Picture Oscar, you'd get a chance to adapt a great novel, or a famous play, or you would be able to make your dream project. Now it gives you a chance to be cinematic superhero. The geeks really have conquered the world.

2. The "This isn't Christopher Nolan's world anymore" factor

One of the big questions surrounding the cinematic future of Batman was whether the next film would be set in the Christopher Nolan/Dark Knight "universe". With the casting of Affleck, it seems that everything connected to the Dark Knight movie trilogy is going to be left out. I've mentioned before that I've had certain reservations about Nolan's take on the character ( I'm certainly not going to start crying if this is a Nolan-free Batman. But...if you have a new take on Batman, that means he has to have a whole new world for himself, and a new Gordon, a new Alfred, a new other words, a new origin story. I'm sick and tired of origin stories--I've seen so many of them in the past few years. It also means the new Batman will have to be "introduced" to the audience...and that means a major portion of the next movie will probably be devoted to this, instead of  more important things like a well-written plot. It would be nice if a movie just let Batman be Batman....but if Affleck is going to play the character, that means he'll have to be "explained"...and to me that's just going to be a waste of time.

3 The "It's so crazy, it just might work!" or "The Robert Downey Jr." factor

The other common point that I've heard Affleck defenders mention is that his casting is so out of left field, it just might surprise everybody and be successful. These people also are bringing up Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of Iron Man--"Nobody thought that would work, and see how that turned out?"

I'll be the first to admit that when I originally heard that Robert Downey was going to play Tony Stark, I assumed it was a joke. That bit of off-beat casting did work. But let's face it, Iron Man is not Batman. There are millions of folks who have never read a comic book in their lives that will have strong emotions on who should play Batman in a movie. Batman is more than just a comic book superhero...he's an authentic American legend. Because of that, I really don't think ANY actor of today can do the Batman justice. But I think there's got to be a lot better choices than Ben Affleck.

The character of the Batman is far more legendary than any actor that winds up playing him. The Batman will survive Ben Affleck....but why even go there in the first place?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Submitted For Your Approval

I'm now up to Season Five on my complete box set of "The Twilight Zone". (I know this is a movie blog, but don't worry...this will come out right in the end.) "The Twilight Zone" is one of my favorite TV shows of all time, and re-watching all the episodes just confirms that it still holds up after all these years.

One great thing about viewing "The Twilight Zone" is seeing the many great stars that appeared on the program. Not just TV personalities of the era, but major movie stars. And there were also major film directors and screenwriters that worked on some of the episodes as well.

For example, let's look at a Fifth Season episode entitled "Night Call". It's about a lonely old woman, played by Gladys Cooper, who starts receiving strange telephone calls in the middle of the night. "Night Call" is one of the creepiest Twilight Zone stories of them all, and there's no blood and no violence involved. The episode was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who helmed such famous films as CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, OUT OF THE PAST, and NIGHT OF THE DEMON. The writer was Richard Matheson, who of course wrote several of the program's best scripts, and wrote a number of film screenplays. Gladys Cooper had a highly distinguished stage career, and she appeared in such classic movies as REBECCA, THAT HAMILTON WOMAN, and NOW, VOYAGER.

That's a very impressive lineup for a half-hour TV show already in it's fifth season. And this wasn't a "special" episode...for "The Twilight Zone", this collection of talent was par for the course.

In another fifth season show, "Living Doll", the original music score is by none other than Bernard Herrmann. By this time (1963) Herrmann had already written some of the most famous music soundtracks in movie history--yet here he was, composing for a half-hour TV show. And this wasn't Herrmann's only episode--he scored a number of them for the series, and his "Twilight Zone" output is just as memorable as anything he did for Hitchcock.

One of the reasons "The Twilight Zone" used so many acclaimed performers and behind-the-camera talent is because it was an anthology show, and every episode had a different story and a different cast. But there's more to it than that--talented people wanted to work on "The Twilight Zone" because they knew how great the show was, and they knew how talented Rod Serling was. Today a lot of people think of Serling as just a science-fiction writer, but he was one of the most accomplished television dramatists of his time. Actors loved doing "The Twilight Zone", even those who usually appeared in only feature films.

"The Twilight Zone" is one of the programs that can be seen on MeTV stations all over America. MeTV shows various programs made the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and while most of them cannot compare in quality with "The Twilight Zone", they do have one thing in common with Serling's creation: numerous guest appearances by many famous film performers.

I know a lot of movie buffs watch the MeTV daily lineup, and they probably do the same thing I a game called "Spot the Guest Star". It doesn't matter if it's "Bonanza", or "The Big Valley", or "Get Smart"....just about every episode has cast members known for their many movie roles. Most of the time I know who they are, some of the time I have to wait and watch the credits to figure out who someone is. (This is another thing that's great about MeTV--they show the complete credits of a show, instead of zipping them by in about 2 seconds, like most basic cable stations do.)

Maybe it's just me, but it seems that TV shows of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s had far more renowned guest stars than the TV shows of today do. I do have to admit that I'm not too familiar with the so-called stars of today--and I'll fully admit that I'm not in much of a hurry to find out more about them. The word "star" is used very cheaply in today's world.

But in the world of classic TV, you knew right off who a "star" really was. A number of TV shows of that era seemed to go out of their way to go after big-name talent--"Wild, Wild West" is a prime example. But even a show like "Gilligan's Island" could get a legend like Phil Silvers. And don't forget that a lot of young legends-to-be made appearances in many classic TV episodes. Between the legends already formed and the legends on their way up, the average movie buff has a lot to keep an eye out for when he or she watches those old TV shows. Sometimes looking for stars is more interesting than what's going on in the actual program.

When I was a kid dozens of classic TV shows where being shown all the time, especially on weekday afternoons (now it's just idiotic talk shows). These shows introduced me to many great movie stars (even though I didn't realize it at the time). Whenever a well-known actress or actor's career is discussed, their TV appearances are skimmed over, if they are even mentioned at all. That's too bad, because sometimes a performer's television work is just as entertaining and enlightening as the more "important" film work.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

This Blog Is Not In 3-D

Joey DeAngelis, creator of the LonChaneyReviews channel on YouTube, recently posted a video discussing the use of 3-D in contemporary movies. Working under the theory that you shouldn't let someone else's good idea go to waste, I've decided to set down my own thoughts on the subject.

I know that this will shock you, but I'm not a big 3-D fan. Actually 3-D doesn't really affect me because I never go see the 3-D versions of today's films. For one thing, I'm cheap. Most movies made today are not even worth the normal price, let alone the special 3-D rate.

The second thing is, most 3-D movies are not really 3-D in the true sense. They're movies that have been converted to 3-D after the production is over. Slapping 3-D on any film is like colorizing a black & white picture. You're not making it better--you doing something to it that wasn't meant to be done in the first place. Most people don't understand the whole "converted to 3-D concept", and when I try to explain it to them I usually get nowhere.

Here's a typical conversation I have with a typical non-film geek friend of mine about 3-D:

DAN: Hey....non-film geek friend of mine....did you go see GENERIC MOVIE FRANCHISE PART FIVE?


DAN: What did you think of it?

DAN'S NON-FILM GEEK FRIEND: I thought it sucked! The 3-D was terrible!!

DAN: was the movie?

DAN'S NON-FILM GEEK FRIEND: I don't know about that...but the 3-D sucked!! It was lame!!

DAN: Well, you know that GENERIC MOVIE FRANCHISE PART FIVE was not originally supposed to be a 3-D film. It was not written, produced, directed, designed, or staged for 3-D whatsoever. It was converted into 3-D during post-production by the studio so they could make extra money.

DAN'S NON-FILM GEEK FRIEND: But the 3-D sucked!

DAN: Okay...why did the 3-D suck?

DAN'S NON-FILM GEEK FRIEND: Because there wasn't stuff flying into your face! When stuff comes flying at you, it's cool! I like movies that are cool!! 3-D is supposed to be cool!! 3-D makes the movie more real!!

I hate to break this to you, boys & girls...but movies ARE NOT REAL. And converting them into 3-D does not make them "more real". I don't know about everyone else's reality, but in my day-to-day life, things don't go flying toward my face. There's a lot of people out there that don't like me, but it hasn't gotten that bad....yet.

When I hear people say that 3-D makes the story "realistic", it reminds me of another pet peeve of mine: the shaky hand-held digital camera. This is another device that is supposed to make things more real...because there's nothing that says "You are there" like an image that seems to come from the B roll of a local TV news segment. It's used all the time now, especially during action sequences, where most of the "action" consists of the viewer trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

An action sequence is far much more then just a bunch of people shooting at one another. Earlier this week I watched NORTH BY NORTHWEST again in honor of Hitchcock's birthday. The crop duster sequence is a seminal piece of film making--you could base an entire film studies course on that segment alone. It's magnificently shot and edited--every single frame exists for a reason. And the audience is totally aware of what is going on the whole time. Would adding 3-D have done anything for it?

If NORTH BY NORTHWEST was made today (God forbid), the crop duster sequence would have a CGI plane heading straight toward the audience. You wouldn't have the plane attacking Cary Grant--it would be chasing Ryan Reynolds or Matt Damon. And Reynolds/Damon would be running away in slow motion (because slow motion is cool!). Then, Reynolds/Damon would suddenly turn around, leap high in the air, and karate kick the plane's pilot in the neck, because Reynolds/Damon just happened to be wearing a super-suit that defied gravity.

Sarcasm? No thank you, I just ate.

Anyway, the next time you pay big bucks to see a high concept film in 3-D, please realize that said film was more than likely not supposed to be 3-D in the first place, and that you're probably not going to get stuff flying in your face for two hours.

The 21st Century 3-D craze won't be going away soon. No matter how much ticket buyers complain about it, they're still buying the 3-D tickets. One also has to factor in the fact that just about every movie geared toward kids is converted into 3-D, and parents think taking their little tykes to a 3-D movie is a special "treat". (Maybe they should buy the offspring some books instead.)

The last time I went to a theater and saw a film in 3-D was HUGO. Even though I had a headache when I got home, I have to give Martin Scorsese credit--he made a film that was meant to be seen in 3-D, and he used the effect in a original and creative way. Of course, originality and creativity are rare things these days at the googleplex. I'll stick to 2-D...and please don't get me started on "lens flare".

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


My journey through the Criterion Eclipse WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU box set is now complete. THE LIVING SKELETON (1968) is a prime example of a Japanese kaidan, and a surprising departure from the other films in this collection.

A freighter carrying gold bullion is ransacked by pirates, and crew members & passengers are machine-gunned down. Three years later, the twin sister of one of the ship's victims begins acting strangely, setting into motion a revenge planned seemingly from beyond the grave.

What makes THE LIVING SKELETON the odd movie out in the Shochiku set is the fact that it is in black & white. The exquisite cinematography enhances the film's eerie tone with a number of memorable images. Adding to the tone is the story's languid pace, which picks up a bit toward the end.

THE LIVING SKELETON foreshadows the 21st Century Asian horror film by the use of a female "ghost" with long black hair and a fair amount of rain and water. But it also throws in some Western elements as well. One of the main characters is a Catholic priest, and several scenes are set in the priest's church. The various religious iconography harkens back to the Universal thrillers of the 1930s. This is, however, a story set in contemporary times, and the juxtaposition between the modern world and the creepy coastal settings contributes to the film's mood. One of the "revenge" killings is actually a take-off on the PSYCHO shower scene.

In the second half of SKELETON there are a couple plot twists that even the most experienced film geek will not have seen coming. It's in the climax that the ultra-weirdness of the other Shochiku horror films makes an appearance. The story almost becomes a tribute to the Bela Lugosi-Mad Scientist B pictures of the 1940s. When the "ghost" freighter starts melting due to a secret formula, you know you're not watching a typical horror tale.

I've been a little bit vague on plot details because I really think those inclined should view this picture, and discover it's crazy charms for themselves. THE LIVING SKELETON is a ghost story beyond any type of comparison.

Now that I've seen all the movies included in this it worth buying?

Well, remember that I didn't buy this set (I got it for free). Any Criterion product is not cheap, and I probably wouldn't have bought this set on my own because I had never honestly heard of any of the films featured in it.

But having seen the films involved, I do have to say that it is worth buying....for a certain type of audience. If you don't like films with subtitles, or films where you have to use your imagination, stay away. But if you are someone who loves classic horror and science-fiction, and has seen just about every example of those genres known to man, this set is for you. I also think that this set would make a great gift for someone who fits the description in the last sentence. I'm fairly sure that not many film buffs out there have seen these movies, or at least seen them uncut and in widescreen. I enjoyed WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU because it enabled me to discover a group of titles I had no knowledge of. These days, that's about all a film buff can hope for when it comes to modern home video.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Earlier this year I purchased a Barnes & Noble edition of the complete fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. I've been a Lovecraft fan since I was a teenager, and while reading all of his stories again it got me thinking about the various films based on Lovecraft's work.

I should have written "...the various films which claim to be based on Lovecraft's work", because most of them have only a tangential connection to the author. The most well-known Lovecraft film adaptation is probably Stuart Gordon's RE-ANIMATOR, which has very little to do with the original story. In recent years several independent film makers have used the short subject form to give more authentic takes on the New England writer's tales. In 2005 a number of Lovecraft fans came together to make a 47-minute film of THE CALL OF CTHULHU. The ingenious premise for this was that the movie was presented as a 1927 silent picture. It's a fine piece of work and one can only wish that modern-day movie producers had the same sort of creative thinking.

The problem with making any type of visual representation of Lovecraft's work is that the man's imagination was so vivid and complex that it's almost impossible to convey it in a non-written form. Lovecraft's writing style is uniquely descriptive, and it has a mood and atmosphere that cannot be matched by any special effects or photographic processes. Lovecraft is truly far better read than seen, and his work does not lend itself easily to typical "Hollywood" style screenwriting tropes.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is a film based on Lovecraft that I've always had a fondness for. Not so much for the quality of the film, but for the fact that I first watched it on Svengoolie way back in the 1980s. An adaptation of one of Lovecraft's best stories, "The Colour out of Space", DIE, MONSTER, DIE! was produced by American-International Pictures in 1965.

The original story is set in Massachusetts, near Lovecraft's iconic fictional town of Arkham. AIP decided to move the location of Arkham to England (apparently the U. K. is far spookier than America). Screenwriter Jerry Sohl also decided to set the action of the story in contemporary 1965, instead of the original tale's early 20th Century.

"The Colour out of Space" deals with a meteorite which falls near a farmhouse, and the horrific effect it has on the family that resides there. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! also has an irradiated meteorite, but instead of a farm we get a creepy old manor house, and instead of a plain American working man named Nahum Gardner, we get Boris Karloff as Nahum Witley, an upper-class Brit.

Nick Adams plays Steve Rienhart, who arrives at the Witley estate due to the summons of Mrs. Witley (played by Freda Jackson). Steve is the boyfriend of the Witley's daughter Susan (Suzan Framer), who he met at college. After a number of mysterious circumstances, Steve and Susan find out that Nahum has been keeping a large meteorite in the cellar, and the rock is having a dangerous effect on all living things that are exposed to it.

Even though DIE, MONSTER, DIE! may be based on a H. P. Lovecraft story, it has a lot in common with AIP's Edgar Allan Poe film series. There's the film beginning with a young man arriving at a gloomy estate, the portraits of disreputable ancestors hanging on the walls, the gloomy cellar complete with diabolic paintings, and the fact that most of the cast spends a lot of time skulking around the house. Even the main titles are backed by a swirling display of colors, just like a number of the AIP Poe titles. AIP had done a Lovecraft standing in for Poe act before in THE HAUNTED PALACE; Lovecraft was a huge admirer of Poe, but his tone, and his outlook, is very different.

The film was directed by Daniel Haller, long-time art director for Roger Corman. One thing about DMD! is that it looks very good (just like all those Poe movies Haller was associated with). I wonder if Haller was assigned this film by AIP to make it consistent with the Poe series. The director does a good job in at least creating a Gothic aspect to the production. Haller would take on Lovecraft again, with somewhat middling results, in the film THE DUNWICH HORROR.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! also bears a great resemblance to a Hammer Films picture--so much so that, if you didn't know better, you'd think it was made by Hammer. The exterior of the Witley estate is none other than good old Oakley Court, well-known to Hammer fans as the Buckingham Palace of British horror films. The cast is made up of several Hammer veterans, such as Suzan Farmer, Freda Jackson, Harold Goodwin, and Sydney Bromley. The musical score (Don Banks) and the special effects (Les Bowie) were also produced by Hammer alums.

There's also the appearance of eccentric character actor Patrick Magee, who appeared in several British fantastic films. Magee only gets one scene--he plays the village doctor, who Nick Adams questions about the Witley family's history. We expect Magee to impart some major information, or move the story along in some way....but his character offers up nothing. To have such an unusual performer such as Patrick Magee in your film and not make proper use of him is a huge waste.

One of the things that makes DIE, MONSTER, DIE! unique is the casting of Nick Adams as the leading man. Adams was a contemporary of James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and Steve McQueen, and his "angry young man" acting style in DMD! sticks out like a sore thumb. Adams' performance isn't's just unusual in that it exists in what is meant to be a Gothic horror film. Adams had appeared in a number of "A" list films, and he had even been nominated for an Academy Award. By this time in his career personal issues had gotten to him, and he wound up going to Japan to star in a couple of Kaiju movies for Toho Studios. When discussing Adams' film work many say that DMD! and the Toho movies are an example of the actor's decline. That's kind of ironic these days, when this very weekend an actor like Matt Damon is receiving kudos for starring in a science-fiction tale.

Of course the real star of DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is Boris Karloff. He gives his usual commanding presence to the role of Nahum Witley, even though most of the time he's confined to a wheelchair. Freda Jackson doesn't have much to do (her character is kept hidden most of the time for a big reveal later on) but she's able to use just her voice to make an impact. As mentioned before, Suzan Framer was an erstwhile Hammer hottie, and in DMD! she gets to wear contemporary clothes. (She looks exceedingly cute in a skirt and tight sweater.) Farmer is stuck playing the typical damsel in distress--she says the line "Oh, Steve!!" about a dozen or so times. She's basically the Marylin Munster of the Witley family....and how come she's not affected by the meteorite?

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is a combination of so many styles, it's hard to define it accurately. It's a horror/sci-fi/AIP/Hammeresque/Poe/Lovecraft/modern Gothic thriller. It's only 78 minutes long, but it's feels like it has a lot of padding to the script (the aforementioned scene with the doctor is one example). With the budgets AIP had there's no way they could have faithfully interpreted Lovecraft's vision of cosmic horror. One does wish they had tried a little harder. For example, the script brings in a sub-plot about Nahum's late father, who apparently was some sort of diabolist. It's suggested that the meteorite is somehow the result of a "curse" handed down by Nahum's father, a supernatural element that Lovecraft would have dismissed out of hand. (Contrary to what most people think, there's very little of the supernatural featured in Lovecraft's work.)

There is one sequence, however, that comes a little close to being Lovecraftian. At one point Steve and Susan hear weird cries, and decide to investigate the manor's locked-up greenhouse. As they approach they notice the interior gives off a greenish glow.  Inside they find gigantic vegetables and bizarre plants (courtesy of pieces of meteorite embedded in the potting soil). There's also a.....thing, a sort of pulpish monstrosity kept in the back of the greenhouse, which is a hideous highlight. This is about as close to Lovecraft as the movie's not much, but it does present  a little of the author's otherworldly weirdness.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is certainly not a great film, or even a great monster film. My fondness for it may be because it takes me back to a time when I was discovering certain films and books which made a huge impression on me. And I have to admit, DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is a fantastic's better than the actual movie.*

* In England the movie was titled MONSTER OF TERROR (how lame is that?)

Friday, August 9, 2013

BEN-HUR (1925)

Because of all the movies that I've seen in my life, it's a very rare thing these days for me to watch a famous film for the very first time. But that's what happened last night when the Turner Classic Movies channel showed the 1925 version of BEN-HUR. The print TCM showed looked spectacular and featured a fine musical score by Carl Davis.

The 1959 version of BEN-HUR is the more renowned one, due to its several Oscar wins and constant TV showings. The '59 HUR is no doubt a great movie, but it's so gigantic and lumbering the viewer almost gets lost in it. The '59 Hur clocks in at 3 and a half hours....the '25 one lasts about an hour less. The silent HUR is also a massive epic--apparently it was the most expensive film ever made at the time--but I thought it had a more personal quality to it.

The '25 HUR went through major production problems, but the film doesn't show it. The plot is relatively the same as the sound HUR, with a few differences. The silent HUR has a far more elaborate sea battle, one that I think is one of the greatest action set-pieces I've ever seen in a silent film. There is also the chariot race, which is just as exciting and breathtaking as the one in the sound version (hard as that may be to believe).

The silent film stars 1920s matinee idol Ramon Navarro as the Jewish Prince, Judah Ben-Hur. He's certainly no Charlton Heston...his Ben-Hur is not a larger-than-life figure. Navarro's Hur is more of a ladies man (due to the fact that Navarro was a contemporary and rival to Rudolph Valentino). Navarro gives, in my opinion, a more down-to-earth quality to Hur than Heston. I'm a big Charlton Heston fan, but the actor's screen presence was so powerful that it had a tendency to overshadow just about every role he played. You fully expect Heston to overcome any obstacle put in front of him....with Navarro, you're not so sure he can triumph.

Francis X. Bushman plays Ben-Hur's Roman rival, Messala. In the silent version Messala is an out-and-out villain all the way, where as in the sound version Stephen Boyd gives the character a more complex rendering. This was Bushman's most famous role, but I thought he was a bit too florid.

The '25 BEN-HUR has quite a few surprises for those who have only seen the '59 version. One example is that the silent version is a far grimmer film. The violence and desperation of the times is one of the silent film's main themes. The slave galley in the silent HUR is even more of a hellhole than the '59 one. Most people would assume that the older movie is less graphic....but that's not the case. The '25 film has an expressionistic tone to the cinematography that I think works quite well. And...believe it or not, there's even a few brief glimpses of nudity--the decadence of the Roman Empire is presented throughout the story.

There's also a number of two-color Technicolor sequences in the silent version. Most of these are made up of Biblical recreations, such as the Nativity, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion. The early color process gives these scenes an unusual and striking style, like something out of a storybook.

All in all, I think the 1925 BEN-HUR holds up very well to it's more illustrious predecessor. It's another reminder of how amazing the art of silent cinema was at its highest form.

Sunday, August 4, 2013


My viewing journey through the WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU box set continues with GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL. (Nice title, eh?)

A Japanese airliner is traveling through a sky filled with nightmarish blood-red clouds. The crew suspects something is amiss (ya think?). Soon birds begin to smash themselves against the side of the plane. The crew is then alerted by radio that there may be a bomb on board. Then...a UFO is spotted, which almost sideswipes the jet, causing all the instruments to malfunction. The jet crash lands on a barren, rocky landscape....and all this happens before the credits roll!

The disparate collection of survivors includes a corrupt politician, a slimy arms merchant, a Vietnam War widow, the mad bomber, an assassin, and a creepy psychiatrist. While running away from the plane the assassin encounters the UFO, which has landed nearby. A blob-like alien enters the assassin's brain through a slit in the middle of his forehead, turning him into a vampire. The alien's plan is to invade and subjugate the entire Earth.

GOKE is wilder and stranger than all the other films in this set. It certainly starts off with a bang, and then sort of resembles other plane crash movies which have desperate characters fighting for survival--except this one has a space vampire. The scenes where the alien enters the "host" body are genuinely disturbing (see picture above). The design of the alien spacecraft's exterior and interior is pretty simple and low-budget--it's mostly flashing lights and primary colors--but it's effective, and it has a Mario Bava-esque quality to it.

Director Hajime Sato uses the confined space of the crashed jet's interior to create a tension-filled atmosphere. Almost from the start of their ordeal the survivors start turning on one another, and the jet almost functions as a sort of haunted house. There's no food or water, and no one knows where they have landed, so the mood gets ratcheted up as the story moves along. The possessed assassin stalks his victims just like Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi would. When a possessed human is killed off, the body crumbles into dust (another unsettling effect).

The various passengers are examples of the greed and violence of mankind (the Vietnam War widow's function in the story is very obvious). At one point the alien (who refers to its race as the Gokemidoro) explains that Earth is ripe for conquest because humanity is too busy killing each other off. So not only do we get a disaster/horror/sci-fi flick, we get a late 1960s message movie as well.

The only two passengers who don't go off the rails are the plane's First Officer and stewardess, who manage to get away...but instead of finding civilization, they find themselves the last people standing in a grimly apocalyptic finale. The downbeat ending feels like it comes from a picture of today instead of 1968.

I'm sure a lot of people will be put off by a title like GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL. But if you are into this type of film, you will be surprised at how effective it is in creating a bizarre, macabre story. For fans of horror and science-fiction, it is definitely worth seeing.


Saturday, August 3, 2013


I'm slowly working my way through WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU, the Criterion Eclipse DVD box set I won at this year's Monster Bash. The next film up for discussion is GENOCIDE.

GENOCIDE starts out with a B-52 bomber being brought down near a Southeast Asian island chain. The plane, which was carrying an H-bomb, was attacked by insects. The crew is found in a nearby cave, their bodies covered with ghastly sores. One crew member has survived....but the man is raving mad, and can't remembered what happened. Since he served a combat tour in Vietnam, and suffers from drug addiction, he gets the blame for the other crew members' deaths....but a Japanese scientist who happens to be in the area remains skeptical about his guilt.

GENOCIDE is a wild ride of a film. It has a manic energy to it, and a storyline which veers off in all sorts of directions. The plot involves a ne'er-do-well husband, his neglected pregnant wife, arrogant American military figures, shifty agents working for an unnamed Eastern Bloc power, and lots and lots of bug attacks.

The movie's most memorable character is a sexy European lady who bears a passing resemblance to Ann-Margret. She also happens to be training insects to destroy the human race. The reason why? As a child she survived a Nazi concentration camp, and this is her revenge on humanity.

The bug attacks consist of a fair amount of stock nature footage of insects, but they are integrated into the scenes very well (if you have a phobia of bugs this movie is not for you). It's mentioned in the movie that insects have been going crazy all over the world--it's suggested that the creatures are taking revenge against mankind and his numerous wars of destruction. This takes into account the plot's Cold War-Vietnam backdrop. Of course the Americans are portrayed as war-like jerks, except for the surviving crew member. He happens to be black, and it seems that the film is trying to make him out as a victim of American racism (and a victim of the country's involvement in Vietnam)....but the guy also escapes his confinement and becomes a threat to the other characters, somewhat dimming any sympathy the viewer may have for him.

One highlight of GENOCIDE is when the well-meaning Japanese scientist injects himself with the evil European lady's serum. The serum's effect triggers a psychedelic dream sequence which rivals the ones used in Roger Corman's many Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Another highlight is the poetically dark ending, where the pregnant wife sails out to sea alone as a giant mushroom cloud looms in the background.

GENOCIDE isn't a movie with a well balanced storyline that makes sense. But it is an interesting sci-fi horror flick that isn't boring. It was made in 1968, and it predates two genre staples of the 1970s--the ecological horror-disaster film and the killer bee movie. If you have a taste for unusual fantastic cinema, GENOCIDE is a picture worth seeking out.

Friday, August 2, 2013


I happen to be a member of the Peter Cushing Association on Facebook, and not too long ago I won a contest run by PCA head Christopher Gullo. (By the way, I highly recommend joining this august organization.) One of the prizes was a DVD-R of the 1941 Columbia film THEY DARE NOT LOVE, which features Peter Cushing in a very small role. But what's more interesting is that this movie is the last feature film directed by James Whale, known for his work at Universal in the early 1930s. Whale has gained more renown in recent years due to his being portrayed by Ian McKellen in the biopic GODS & MONSTERS.

THEY DARE NOT LOVE is a WWII suspense melodrama--or I should say it tries to be one. It's not very suspenseful or dramatic. The story concerns an Austrian Prince (George Brent) who flees his country after the Nazis take over. Before he leaves the Prince swears he will do whatever he can to help out his homeland--but his "escape' consists of taking passage on a luxury cruise ship to America. While on board the Prince romances another Austrian emigre, Marta (Martha Scott). The Prince spends most of his time in the U.S. living the life of a playboy, until Marta's father shames him into deciding to trade himself for seven Austrians incarcerated in concentration camps.

George Brent is best remembered for the many movies in which he co-starred with Bette Davis. He was the leading man in a number of soap-opera type films of the 1930s, and he shared the screen with just about every famous actress of that period, including Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, Ann Sheridan, Ruth Chatterton, and many others. Brent's real job was to make his leading ladies look good--he certainly wasn't in the class of Clark Gable. His portrayal of the Prince is a bit stiff and underwhelming....just like most of his other roles. It doesn't help that it's hard for the audience to get all that involved in the Prince's fate. He's the type of guy who puts on a ceremonial uniform before fleeing his own country. We are told that the Prince is an Austrian legend, and the Nazis fear his return because he might incite his countrymen to rebel....but the guy spends most of his time wearing fancy clothes and partying. Another actor might have brought something to the role, some sort of hidden resolve. It's not a very well written part (how can the average viewer root for a undynamic aristocrat?), but Brent's lackluster playing of it does not help matters.

Brent goes to Gestapo agent von Helsing (catch that name, Peter Cushing fans?) to effect his transfer for the Austrian prisoners. This great plan shows that the Prince isn't the smartest guy in the world--did he really believe that he could make a deal with Nazi Germany?? The Gestapo agree to send the Prince on a boat to neutral Belgium. Right before the boat sails, the crew is replaced by Germans, Marta scampers on board to stop the Prince, and the Austrian couple learn that the boat's real destination is Hamburg.

The Prince and Marta are saved not by any slam-bang heroics from the leading man, but by a last-minute plot contrivance. One suspects that the Prince will go on to continue his high-class life.

When one first glances at the credits of THEY DARE NOT LOVE, one expects a far better picture than the end result. Among the credited writers are Charles Bennett, who worked on a number of Alfred Hitchcock's "British Period" suspense thrillers of the 1930s, and James Edward Grant, who had a long association with John Wayne. Despite the involvement of these men, THEY DARE NOT LOVE is rather slow-moving at even a short 76-minute running time. Most of the scenes are of dialogue exhanges, and they are filmed about as generically as possible.

Other members of the cast include Paul Lukas, who gives the best performance in the film as Gestapo agent von Helsing. (One wishes he had played the role of the Prince.) Frank Reicher plays the German ship captain, and it's a very different role from the ship's captain the actor portrayed in KING KONG. There's also a very, very young Lloyd Bridges as a German sailor.

And as for Peter Cushing....he appears at the very end, in a very small role as a Royal Navy Officer. It's one of the few times Cushing would be able to serve his country on-screen.

Even though the title credits show James Whale as the sole director of THEY DARE NOT LOVE, several sources list Charles Vidor, and even Victor Fleming, as having a hand in the film. Apparently Whale was replaced during shooting, and how much of the film was under his stewardship is unclear. As mentioned before, the movie is shot in a very ordinary manner--it's professionally done, and it's certainly not terrible, but it lacks a certain style to make it more than merely competent. THEY DARE NOT LOVE lacks Whale's quirky flourishes, and it's missing his eccentric sense of humor. There is one scene that has the mark of James Whale--it's the aforementioned part where the Prince makes his vow to serve Austria. The scene takes place at the burial of the Prince's chauffeur, and it features a large slanted that almost exactly resembles the crucifix hanging on the wall inside the blind hermit's home in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

I don't know what exactly happened to James Whale during the filming of THEY DARE NOT LOVE, but I suspect that the acerbic director was so bored with the script he contrived to get himself taken off the picture. Back in his glory days as "The Ace of Universal", Whale usually had control of the projects he worked on. After the Laemmle family sold their share of the company Whale was no longer top dog, and he drifted from film to film, being increasingly harder and harder to deal with. THEY DARE NOT LOVE was probably the final straw, and after it Whale retired, never to make another major studio film again.

It's too bad that THEY DARE NOT LOVE was the swan song for one of movie history's most talented and unique directors. The movie is of interest as a curiosity piece, but it doesn't really warrant multiple viewings.