Friday, May 29, 2015


Auteur Publishing has started a new book series on famous classic horror films. One of the first entries covers THE CURSE OF THE FRANKENSTEIN, the seminal 1957 production which was the first color Gothic thriller released by England's Hammer Films.

It would seem that there is nothing more that really needs to be said about THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN--the movie has been written about extensively over the years. Author Marcus K. Harmes explains in the book's introduction that he wishes to examine how the film was influenced by what came before it, instead of looking at it as a harbinger of English Gothic cinema to come. Harmes' main theme is that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was a "transgressive adaptation"--in other words, not a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel or any other Frankenstein film made before, but an adaptation of many different themes and ideas.

Harmes spends a lot of time going over his transgressive adaptation theory, and because of this, parts of the book tend to be rather dry. Harmes does make some interesting points--he brings up the fact that almost all of Hammer's big-screen output was in some way an adaptation, or a remake, or a reboot, if you will (the author uses such examples as Hammer's Universal horror reworkings and their various theatrical adaptations of British radio and television programs). Harmes also informs the reader that even though THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was the first Gothic horror film for Peter Cushing, the actor had several years experience in period costume stories on the stage and on BBC TV, which certainly enabled him to fit into the story.

One unique comparison Harmes makes to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the late-1940s series of costume melodramas made by the Gainsborough Studios. The author mentions that the director of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Terence Fisher, worked for Gainsborough, as did many other behind-the-camera talent who would wind up at Hammer during their Gothic horror period.

This is a very slim volume--it is only 100 pages long, and it's size is 5 1/2 X 7 1/2 inches. There are a few black and white stills from the movie sprinkled throughout the book, but if you are a major Hammer fan, you've no doubt seen those stills dozens and dozens of times before. This is a decent work, but there really isn't anything particularly earth-shattering here. I have to give credit to any writer who can spend a whole book discussing one film--but unless you are a rabid Hammer fan who buys everything connected to the company, you don't have to rush right out and buy this.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


On this day in 1913, Peter Cushing was born. Tomorrow, May 27th, will be the 93rd birthday of Sir Christopher Lee. In honor of these screen legends I asked my good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy, to contribute a guest post about his favorite movie of all time--THE GORGON, released in 1964 from Hammer Films, directed by Terence Fisher, and starring Cushing & Lee.

Let me begin by saying that everyone has their personal favorite film: a film that is special only to them, no matter how bad or cheesy it may be to others. This one is mine. The film THE GORGON is synonymous with the name Joshua Kennedy. It is so ingrained into my soul that it is near on impossible to separate the film from the man, or the man from the film, and thus, I shall do my very best to write as objectively as possible.

In 1964, the British film company Hammer Films had exhausted their line of movie monsters, achieving success with their earlier adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and the Wolfman...but now they longed for something new. After placing an ad in the newspapers calling for ideas from Hammer fans, they soon received an idea that mixed familiar Hammer ingredients with Greek mythology. The story was submitted by J. Lewellyn Devine, and it soon became the foundation for THE GORGON.

The story involves the German village of Vandorf, and its nearby Castle Borski, being haunted by the spirit of Megeara, "one of {the} three sisters known as gorgons" who were so hideous that any one who looked upon them were "petrified". Barbara Shelley as Carla Hoffman tells us "The proper term is 'Gorgonized' which literally means turned to stone."

Megeara begins attacking the citizens of Vandorf, and when a few outsiders begin to investigate, they find that all is not what it seems as the village appears to be hiding something about the monster.

THE GORGON is considered the last of Hammer's "Golden Era" of Gothic films, mainly because of their move from Bray Studios soon after this film to the much more spacious Elstree Studios. In addition, THE GORGON is blessed with two dynamite performances from both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It is the only time where their usual niche roles of Cushing being the good guy and Lee plying the monster are switched as Cushing plays the cold Dr. Namaroff, and Lee the warm and sarcastic Professor Meister.

Richard Pasco and Barbara Shelley play the doomed lovers, Paul Heitz and Carla Hoffman, and they are truly a sight to behold for the roles in the hands of less talented performers could have easily swayed into overacting. Pasco and Shelley, however, both maintain a heightened realism keeping in the tone and feel of the film.

Barbara Shelley, I might add, was my first on-screen crush, followed soon after by Martine Beswicke.

Many critics and Hammer fans have criticized the film's glacial pacing in regard to actual on-screen attacks from the monster, and this is very true. Looking past the modern tendency toward an explosion every two seconds, THE GORGON is still slow when compared to some of Hammer's earlier films like THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. THE GORGON, however, is not meant to be a monster movie; it is meant to be a love story, not unlike that of Romeo and Juliet. It is this fact that obviously led to its poor box-office receipts in 1964, and its constant overlooking in many fans' eyes.

I remember being five or six and already a huge Medusa and Hammer films fan, staying up late that fateful night to watch this movie. The first fully lit shot of Megeara frightened the daylights out of me, so much so that I quickly woke up my Dad to comfort me. On the screen was the personification of a child's fears: an elderly witch smiling devilishly from behind a hair of writhing snakes.

When watching the film at Monster Bash this past October (on its 50th anniversary AND with Dan Day Jr. as well!) this shot gathered laughter from the audience, and it's not hard to see why--the snakes are laughably rubber, and matters are not helped by the fact that poor Prudence Hyman is standing in a blinding light unable to hide the falsity of her costume.

The imagination of a six-year old boy saw none of that. My mind was so incredibly entranced by that shot and this film that the world of Vandorf is one that I am always enthralled to return to every time I watch it.

The irreparable harm this film has caused me is incalculable...but here are three examples:

1. I'm sure a day doesn't go by when I quote some obscure line from the film; this is mostly due to the fact that as a boy I recorded the entire soundtrack onto my handy tape-recorder, named Carla of course (!), and listened to it nightly as I drifted to sleep.

2. My Dad and I adapted this film for the community stage where we played the Lee and Cushing roles respectively, when I was 10 years old (!). The play ended with the head of Megeara, which was on wires, flying over the heads of the audience.

3. As I have begun making films of my own, I have always found a moment to pay homage to THE GORGON, if by a similar camera angle or a line of dialogue.

Sigh. I love this movie. For those who haven't seen it, I think you should give it a shot.

To quote Cushing in CAPTAIN CLEGG, 'There is nothing I like more than talking about myself...." and /or my love for classic horror so I would like to thank my good friend Dan Day Jr. for obliging me.

--Joshua Kennedy

Josh Kennedy and I in our hotel room at Monster Bash October 2014 getting ready to go down and watch THE was such a momentous occasion for Josh he demanded we pose for a picture!!

Friday, May 22, 2015


A couple years ago, I raved about the Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray release of the Douglas Fairbanks silent epic THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. Now Cohen has come out with a stunning restoration of one of the most obscure Alfred Hitchcock films, 1939's JAMAICA INN.

Whenever I have tried to watch JAMAICA INN before on television, I have never been able to get through it--mainly because the sound & picture quality was so bad. This Blu-ray looks and sounds light-years better than any previous version of the movie shown. The actual movie itself may not have improved, but at least Hitchcock fans will be able to view a outstanding version of it.

JAMAICA INN was the last film Hitchcock made in Britain before going to the United States and signing a contract with producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock was asked to direct the film by star and co-producer Charles Laughton. The story is an adaptation of a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (Hitchcock would later adapt her writings in REBECCA and THE BIRDS). JAMAICA INN is a period melodrama set in early 19th Century Cornwall, England, about a band of murderous smugglers. It is not typical Hitchcock material and JAMAICA INN is not a typical Hitchcock film.

Maureen O'Hara (in her first major film role), plays a young Irish lass named Mary who travels to Cornwall, and the Jamaica Inn, to live with her maternal aunt and uncle. Mary finds out that her Uncle is the head of the smugglers....but the real brains behind the operation belong to the local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallen (Charles Laughton), who controls the bandits in secret.

JAMAICA INN is more a Laughton film that a Hitchcock film. Laughton was one of the great all-time screen actors, but there were times when he could just get too hammy--and this film is one of those times. Not only is Pengallen a bad guy, it is hinted at in the film that he is going mad....and that gives Laughton all the excuse he needs to deliver a rather florid performance. As Pengallen Laughton is fitted out with fake eyebrows and what looks to be a fake nose. He dominates every scene he is in, complete with all sorts of bizarre physical mannerisms and line readings. The fact that Laughton was the co-producer of the film might be the reason why Hitchcock let the actor go all out....but the two did not get along too well during the shoot, and since the actor was the co-producer, the director may have not felt like arguing with him.

The rest of the cast (especially the smugglers) seems to have taken Laughton's lead, acting-wise. Nearly every other character is "colorful"--so much that it is hard for a viewer to identify with any of them. If there is a "normal" person in the film it is Maureen O'Hara. Only 19 years old at this time, she's exquisitely beautiful, and she already shows some of the feisty attitude that would become her trademark during her later years in Hollywood. O'Hara was in JAMAICA INN because she was under personal contact to Charles Laughton--when Laughton went to America to make THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME for RKO, he took O'Hara with him, and the rest is movie history.

Robert Newton, whose most famous role would be Long John Silver in Disney's version of TREASURE ISLAND, plays the nominal hero, even though the script doesn't give him much of a chance to do anything heroic. Newton is rather bland here, which is hard to believe if you've seen him chew the scenery as Stevenson's famous pirate.

There isn't really much story--or all that much suspense--in JAMAICA INN. At 99 minutes the film has a tendency to drag a bit, especially when Laughton is not on the screen. The audience finds out very early that Laughton is the main villain, which negates whatever suspense the story might have had. The opening sequence, which shows the smugglers luring a ship onto the rocks during a storm and then killing the crew and stealing the cargo, is done very well and is the most "Hitchcockian" thing in the whole production.

The one thing JAMAICA INN does have is atmosphere--one just wishes it had even more of it. The area around the inn, and the inn itself, looks as if it belongs in a classic Universal horror film (this is a black and white film, by the way). The settings are dark and dreary--there doesn't seem to be a ray of sunshine in all of Cornwall. Unfortunately there are a lot of interior scenes in JAMAICA INN, and they do not take advantage of the oppressive settings of the surrounding landscape. (Everything in the film, believe it or not, was shot in a studio--even the shipwreck sequences.)

The real reason that JAMAICA INN does not rank with the best of Hitchcock's work may be that the director was already mentally preparing to go to America. If Hitchcock had initiated the project on his own, he would have been far more involved in the script, and he would have brought out more of those elements which fitted his cinematic personality. JAMAICA INN is not a terrible film, but it's not a classic, either. The film's real notoriety lies in its director and young leading lady, and the extravagant performance by its star. (You know who would have been the perfect director for this film? None other than James Whale. He would have really gone to town with all the eccentric English personalities.)

As I said at the beginning of this blog, JAMAICA INN looks magnificent on this Blu-ray--the disc really brings out the cinematography, production design, and the costumes. The Blu-ray features a short talk on JAMAICA INN with author Donald Spoto, who has written a number of books on Alfred Hitchcock (and I own most of them). There is also an audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold, which is very thorough and very informative (Arnold likes the movie very much).

Cohen has done a excellent job with this Blu-ray, and I'm anticipating what they will be releasing in the future.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Universal has just released 1941 on Blu-ray. This movie has long been considered Steven Spielberg's worst film as a director, and it is also remembered as a costly bomb--but like several other films with bad reputations, 1941 now has a cult following.

1941 started out as one of the first scripts written by then-fledgling filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. The story was passed on to John Milius, who brought it to the attention of Steven Spielberg. After the mega-success of JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Spielberg decided to do something different and make this "comedy".

The thing is, this comedy is based on the fear and paranoia Californians felt during the immediate aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. To put that in perspective....could you imagine someone making a comedy about the fear and paranoia New Yorkers felt during the immediate aftermath of 9/11? 1941 came out when I was just a kid, and I honestly don't recall any controversy over the movie, or a large group of anyone being offended by it.....but with the way that "The Greatest Generation" has become something of an overall brand name for anything World War II related, there's no way 1941 could be made today.

You would think that a movie combining the talents of Spielberg, Milius, Zemeckis, and Gale would be epic, and it is.....for all the wrong reasons. 1941 is the biggest, loudest, longest, and most expensive Three Stooges tribute ever made. If the Stooges had made their own version of 1941, say in....1941, it would have been about 17 minutes long and it would have worked perfectly. The real 1941 is so overblown and filled with excess that the viewer spends more time trying to take it all in instead of sitting back and getting any enjoyment out of it.

Every character in the film--with maybe the exception of Robert Stack as General Joseph Stilwell--is a buffoon, or a jerk, or a sex-crazed idiot. 1941 features just about a hundred of these characters, and while some of them are funny, the constant parade of silly behavior gets tiresome after a two-hour running time. I have a theory about epic comedies like 1941 and THE GREAT RACE and IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. Slapstick, in my opinion, works best when it is fast and quick, and the audience doesn't have time to think about it. The longer a comedy movie is, the more and more funnier the jokes have to be to keep up the momentum, and no film can be constantly laugh-out-loud funny for over two-plus hours. There's only so many ways you can watch someone fall over.

1941 attempts to be funny all the way through, with no breaks whatsoever. There's no "normal" characters, and there's no one the audience identifies with or roots for. Every time someone does fall down, that person knocks down something which knocks down something else, which causes a nearby gas pump to get knocked over, which causes the gas to spill, which winds up igniting and blowing up a huge building. (I'm exaggerating here, but not by much.) There's a hundred various large-scale gags in 1941, and any single one of them would have been the climatic topper in a Three Stooges short. Every scene is filled with what appears to be hundreds of extras--there are major serious historical war movies that don't have half as many people in them as 1941 does. (Please remember that 1941 was made long before CGI--all the extras are real, and many of the gags were done with real planes and tanks, or at least complicated models.)

The only other film I can compare 1941 to is the aforementioned IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. That earlier film, however, did actually have a main plot. 1941 is just a series of comic vignettes strung together. The comparison works better when one looks at the cast list of both films. Just like MAD WORLD, 1941 has an amazing list of performers. Put aside John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for a moment and consider some of the supporting players: Dub Taylor, Elisha Cook Jr., Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, John Candy, Ned Beatty....and don't forget the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee act alongside each other. Heck, even Dick Miller is in this movie (playing Officer Miller).

The problem is that such a great cast is mostly wasted. Aykroyd and Belushi don't even share a scene together (at least not in any official version of the movie), and Mifune and Lee spend most of their time trying to get Slim Pickens to take a crap. As I've mentioned, Robert Stack's General Stilwell comes off for the most part as normal (maybe because "Vinegar Joe" was a real historical figure), but even Stilwell spends most of his time on screen more worried about watching DUMBO than whether the Japanese are attacking Los Angeles.

One thing I will say for 1941 is that it features an astounding number of impressive special effects sequences. Because 1941 was a comedy, the FX done for it doesn't get much credit--but it should, because there's as much of it here as in any STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES film. I should also mention the music score by John Williams--it is one of his best, and it gets very little credit compared to the rest of the composer's work.

This Blu-ray of 1941 has two versions of the film--a two hour theatrical cut, and a two and a half hour extended cut. Needless to say, the shorter version works better. Both cuts have DTS sound, which is perfect for a movie filled with explosions and actors yelling and screaming.

The Blu-ray also has a feature-length documentary on the making of 1941, in which Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Gale are extensively interviewed. All four men regard 1941 as a fun time, and they seem to have no regrets about it at all. (It's obvious from the behind-the-scenes footage in this documentary that the 1941 shoot was one big party--this is definitely one production where the cast & crew had more fun making the movie than the audience did watching it.) Steven Spielberg reveals that he wanted John Wayne for the role of General Stilwell--and the Duke was really interested until he read the script. Wayne was one person who was offended by the story's take on WWII, and the actor even tried to get Spielberg to quit the project altogether. After Wayne turned the role down, Spielberg tried to get Charlton Heston to play it, but he didn't like the movie's tone either. Some might find the making of documentary more interesting than the movie.

There's also a stills gallery here, with a difference--the stills are shown in the order of the scenes in which they are from, and they are individually captioned. This gallery runs over an hour, and it is like watching the movie from an entirely new angle. (I wish more DVD and Blu-ray still galleries were like this.)

1941 is not a good movie, but it is an interesting one from a historical perspective. The on-and-off screen talent alone makes it worth a viewing. This Blu-ray is chock full of extras for film buffs and film collectors, and I got it rather cheap from Amazon.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


If Sam Peckinpah had made a version of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.....well, in a way, he did--and it has just been released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber: CONVOY, from 1978.

For those that are annoyed by movies based on video games and Lego toys, consider that CONVOY is based on a hit novelty-country song about American truck drivers. CONVOY went on to gross more money than any other Sam Peckinpah-directed film--but it did more harm to Peckinpah's career than good, and very few people today would consider the end result a classic.

Kris Kristofferson stars as a legendary trucker with the CB handle of "Rubber Duck". The Duck gets caught up in the machinations of corrupt Arizona sheriff "Dirty Lyle" (Ernest Borgnine). After a truck-stop brawl with Lyle and his deputies, Rubber Duck and some of his trucker buddies head out on the road and form a huge convoy--a convoy that gets so huge it attracts the attention of the media and local politicians.

Apparently the convoy is some sort of protest--but what the protest is about, and why so many truckers are actually joining the convoy, never really gets explained (heck, the truckers themselves don't seem to really know what they are doing). On the surface it would seem that Rubber Duck is just another in a long line of Sam Peckinpah's typical movie leading characters--a man so independently stubborn he winds up hurting himself and those around him. The problem is that the tone of CONVOY shifts so much that it's hard to take the truckers seriously. Most of the time it plays like a dumb 1970s action-comedy (which I think is what the producers of the film really wanted). At other times it tries to be more, such as when the truckers' dealings with the media & politicians resembles something out of a Frank Capra movie. At the end it's hard to decide what the movie is supposed to represent (and the fact that Peckinpah was fired before the final edit doesn't help).

The character of Dirty Lyle changes tone constantly as well. At the beginning of the film he's mean, petty, and vicious, but soon he becomes almost a cartoon villain. Towards the climax Dirty Lyle appears to show sympathy for Rubber Duck...even as he is trying to blow him away with a machine gun!

CONVOY does has enough stunts and crashes to satisfy most 1970s action fans. This may not be Peckinpah's personal cut of the film, but it still has a lot of his trademarks in it. Most of the main cast had worked for Peckinpah before--in fact Kris Kristofferson had already played an outlaw that got the attention of the Governor of New Mexico for Sam in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. Ali MacGraw, who was in THE GETAWAY, is the female lead here, but her character really has no point at all--she's apparently supposed to be a fashion photographer who gets caught up in the proceedings. MacGraw is also saddled with in what my opinion is a very bad short-perm haircut--I think she looks way better with longer hair.

The circumstances surrounding the making of the film are probably more interesting that the film itself. The movie's chaotic production is well covered by the extras on this Blu-ray. First of all is a 73 minute documentary on the making of CONVOY, which reveals that Peckinpah (who already had a long history with alcohol) was taking cocaine during the shoot. The documentary features a number of on-set photos which show how badly Peckinpah looked at the time--he was in his early 50s during
filming but he looks at least 20 years older. There's also interviews with Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw, and Ernest Borgnine....but the best talk is with EMI executive Michael Deeley. Usually whenever there is a discussion about tempers between a director and a producer, the director is almost always portrayed as the aggrieved party, and the producers are portrayed as soulless and money-hungry. Here Deeley is allowed to calmly explain his side of the story, and explain why Peckinpah was just about impossible to work with. Sam Peckinpah was a great talent, and he is one of my favorite movie directors of all time--but the fact is that he annoyed or offended nearly all of those he came into contact with. Film buffs constantly complain about how "they" wouldn't let Peckinpah do what he wanted--I'm amazed that Peckinpah got ANY movie made, period.

An audio commentary is on this Blu-ray as well, featuring Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, and Garner Simmons. These men have been involved in audio commentaries for most of Peckinpah's other films, and listening to them collectively is like attending a film studies course on the director. This one is different in that the trio do not like CONVOY very much, and as a result they spend most of the time discussing Peckinpah's failing state of mental & physical health, and the connection that had with his failing career. The many other extras include trailers, radio and TV spots, and production stills.

CONVOY is basically a goofy 1970s action-comedy. The fact that Sam Peckinpah was involved in it makes it a bit more notable. The background of the making of CONVOY is the most notable thing about it, and film buffs will probably be more inclined to buy this Blu-ray than a general audience. This movie had not been available on North American home video for awhile, and once again Kino Lorber has to be given credit for releasing a great presentation of a no-so-great film.

Friday, May 15, 2015

My Favorite Classic Movie

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16). To view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon:

Now....I know that some people will disagree with my pick for favorite classic movie of all time, for the simple reason that they don't think the movie qualifies as a "classic". Most would assume that classic automatically means "old". Well, we live in a world where a film like JURASSIC PARK is considered "old".....and this month will mark the 38th anniversary of the original release of my pick. That year, 1977, marked the 38th anniversary of another famous film's debut: GONE WITH THE WIND. So I would say that my pick deserves the recognition of "classic".

My pick is STAR WARS.

STAR WARS (the real STAR WARS--the version that came out in May 1977) is my favorite movie of all time. The whole reason I love movies, the whole reason that I am a film buff--heck, the whole reason I write a movie blog goes all the way back to STAR WARS.

I saw STAR WARS during its original release, when I was eight years a drive-in, no less. I was obsessed with it even before I saw it, due to the Topps STAR WARS trading cards and the Marvel comic book movie adaptation. Everything about the movie intrigued me and fired up my young imagination. I saw STAR WARS at exactly the right age, and exactly the right time. Back then I certainly couldn't articulate what made me love the film so much. All I knew was that I wanted to spend as much time in this world as possible. At that point fairy tales and kiddie stories had not made much effect on me--but STAR WARS did.

STAR WARS got me interested in other science-fiction and fantasy films, and that led to my interest in classic horror films, and that led to my interest in classic films in general, and so on, and so on. All cinema is connected in some way--even if you try to just limit yourself to just one genre of film, or one director, or one actor, you will be exposed to many different types of movies. If I hadn't seen STAR WARS when I did, I think I still would have become a film buff in some way--I'm sure some movie would have come along and triggered my interest--but STAR WARS was the one that did.

STAR WARS--I'm talking about the whole saga now--has become a cultural phenomenon. It is now world-wide modern mythology. Everything about STAR WARS is so famous now that I believe the movie itself is somewhat taken for granted. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK may be the "better" film, but STAR WARS still holds up as a great film on its own.

STAR WARS moves fast--especially for a movie that came out in 1977. I love how the movie goes from one location to the other, constantly introducing new characters and new plot situations along the way. The movie doesn't stop to take a breath, and it doesn't stop to linger on the fantastic production design, either. We all know now how much George Lucas loves his CGI--but for the original STAR WARS the sets and settings have a reality to them that would be defined as a "used universe". That's what I really noticed as a kid when I saw photos from the movie in magazines and on trading cards. Everything looked like it really existed, and I had just never seen anything like it before. One must also remember that back in 1977 almost nothing about the STAR WARS universe had been explained yet. There were so many things going in in the first STAR WARS movie, and so many things that existed in the background....and they were just there. The movie didn't stop to tell you what was going on, were dropped into the middle of this galactic battle, and you just had to go along for the ride. Yes, there was that opening crawl, but that just gave a brief overview of the situation. Today's movies explain everything. The original STAR WARS explained almost nothing...and that just made it more fascinating.

Are the characters in STAR WARS generic? Well, yes, but that is what they're supposed to be. Young, naive farmboy....cocky star-pilot...beautiful feisty princess...strange old wizard....these are all archetypes, to be sure, but they are archetypes that people know and understand right off the bat. The acting in the STAR WARS movies never gets any credit at all, and George Lucas gets no credit for his direction of human beings, but you have to give props to Lucas for one thing....he picked the right combination of actors to portray these archetypes. You can call it luck (although Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn't believe in such a thing as luck), but if you recast even just one of the main characters in STAR WARS, the whole movie would come out very differently.

And let's not forget the main thing that intrigued me and so many other kids back in 1977: Darth Vader. It was the look of Vader, more than anything else, that made him so popular. Take the stature of Dave Prowse, and add the voice of James Earl Jones, and you have more than just a cool bad guy--you have one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. I can't even begin to tell you how much kids loved Darth Vader back in 1977. If you had any of the Topps Star Wars trading cards that had Vader's picture on them, it was like you were carrying gold around in your pockets. I'm proud to say that I wore the original Darth Vader Halloween costume in the fall of 1977.

And believe me, I had more Star Wars stuff than just a Halloween costume--I had the original Star Wars lunch box, the Star Wars Burger Chef movie posters, and the first Star Wars action figures (which actually didn't come out until 1978--but that's another story). Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in the movie, wound up being my favorite actor of all time, and Carrie Fisher became one of my first crushes.

I could go on and on about STAR WARS (and if you read some of my other posts through the last couple years, you'll find that I have). I'm sure I've seen it about a hundred times, but I still love watching it. As a matter of fact, I viewed my DVD of the original version on May 4, Star Wars Day. This is the DVD that is non-anamorphic with sub-par sound & picture quality...but I still prefer it to the changed version on Blu-ray. Whether you like it or not, STAR WARS changed motion pictures forever, and it still affects the motion picture industry to this day. I love this movie and I always will. One of the greatest gifts that God has given us is out ability to use our imaginations. STAR WARS was the movie that unlocked my imagination. If I sound like a STAR WARS nerd, that is because I am--an original one.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


One of Kino Lorber's latest releases in their "Studio Classics" home video line is the 1970 Western BARQUERO, starring Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates.

If you have been reading this blog you know that I am a huge Lee Van Cleef fan. I had never seen BARQUERO, and I had always assumed that it was a true Spaghetti Western--but it's not. The movie was an American production, shot in Colorado. BARQUERO tries to be just like a Spaghetti Western, but it doesn't quite get there.

The movie opens with a rather large group of bandits (there seems to be about a hundred of these guys) laying waste to a small town and killing all the citizens. The bandits are led by a vicious man by the name of Jake Remy (Warren Oates). Remy's real reason for attacking the town was to steal a huge cache of rifles. Remy intends to take these rifles and his men and cross into Mexico, to start a new revolution.

To get to Mexico Remy and his gang have to cross the river. They have to use the only barge within miles, and that barge is run by the mysterious Travis (Lee Van Cleef). Needless to say, Travis is not too happy with the idea of a bunch of bandits taking over his property, and the "Barquero" decides to put up a resistance.

The idea of a barge being the main plot point in a Western may seem silly to some people....but think about it: back in the 19th Century, if you had to go over a large river, and there were no bridges around, how would you do it? A small settlement has been built around the barge crossing, and Travis ferries over the settlers to the other side before Remy and his men arrive. The settlers (who sort of look down on Travis in the first place) want to get back to their homes and property, and they try to convince Travis to either give in to Remy or make a deal with him.

Of course Lee Van Cleef isn't about to give in to anyone for any reason. The character of Travis is a lot more working class than the Colonel Mortimer type of role Van Cleef usually played around this time. Travis is a taciturn loner, his only friend being Forrest Tucker's mountain man. Travis goes out of his way to protect the settlers and fend off Remy's gang, but it seems the real reason he is doing this is just pure stubbornness rather than a sense of doing good.

Warren Oates was a fantastic character actor, and here in this movie he is incredibly mean & cruel. Remy spends a lot of time smoking marijuana, and having flashbacks--kind of like how Gian Maria Volonte's character acted in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. Remy acts more and more mentally unbalanced as the story goes along, to the point where he almost seems comic. Remy's main lieutenant, a French veteran of Maximilian's Mexican occupation army, is played by Kerwin Mathews, who I will always think of as Sinbad from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Mathews is very good in what is an unusual role for him.

The reason Remy gets to spend so much time smoking weed and hallucinating is that for most of the film Remy and Travis are at opposite sides of the river, waiting for the other to make some sort of move. BARQUERO is about 110 minutes long, and that's way too much of a running time for this sort of material. There are a couple of sub-plots to fill things out, including Mariette Hartley as a settler who offers herself to Travis if he saves her husband, who has been taken hostage by Remy's men on the other side of the river. The sub-plots just delay the final showdown, and after the final scene, you will probably say what I said..."Why didn't Travis just do that in the first place?"

BARQUERO was directed by Gordon Douglas, who is best known for making several Frank Sinatra movies in the 1960s. Douglas had actually made a very underrated, and very violent Western named RIO CONCHOS years before, so he certainly knew his way around the genre. BARQUERO isn't just doesn't have enough in it to make it particularly noteworthy. As stated before, it tries to pattern itself on the Spaghetti Westerns, but it isn't flamboyant enough to be considered part of that class.

The real reason to see BARQUERO is to watch Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates. Both actors had spent several years playing bit parts in various movie & TV Westerns--if BARQUERO had been made 10 years earlier, Van Cleef and Oates would have been members of Remy's gang, and they would have been killed off halfway though the film. It's nice to see them get the main roles and oppose one another--but because both men are on different sides of the river throughout the movie, they never appear in the same scene face-to-face!

One more thing I must mention. While the visual quality of the movie is fine, the sound mix makes certain dialogue passages hard to hear--and unfortunately there are no subtitles. The only extra is an original trailer.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that Paul Lyzun is one of my best friends. Nevertheless, this is my honest appraisal of his film.

On September 14, 2000, three men who were working on a barn near an upscale rural home outside of Lakeville, Indiana were murdered during a botched attempted robbery. The crime shocked Northern Indiana, and the case became even more notorious due to a young woman named Charity Payne.

Director Paul Lyzun's documentary WITHOUT CHARITY examines the case through Payne, who was accused of having told the men who committed the murders how to bypass the security system at the house (the family of Payne's former boyfriend lived at the residence). Despite Payne's testimony that she had no idea what was going to happen, the woman was convicted and sentenced to 165 years in prison.

The ramifications of the case--and the effects it had on the families and friends of those involved--are covered through numerous interviews. Police and law officials from St. Joseph County are asked about their decision to charge Payne, and members of each of the three murder victims' families are allowed to express their feelings. Charity Payne may be the main focus of this film, but the director makes sure that the viewer realizes that three men lost their lives in a horrible and senseless manner.

Payne only served seven years of her sentence before it was overturned--and that decision brought out a whole new series of questions and controversies, which are examined in a straightforward, even-handed manner. This is a riveting documentary, but it is not an easy one to watch. At the end there is no sense of justice, or triumph, or even closure....there is only a set of unanswered questions, which thankfully the director does not try to answer for the audience. These unanswered questions will remain in the viewer's memory long after the film has been seen.

For more information on WITHOUT CHARITY, please visit

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Watching Movies In The 21st Century

As of this writing I have not seen the new AVENGERS movie yet. It's been a long time since I've seen a blockbuster film on its opening weekend. It used to be a common thing for me to go see big-time movies as soon as I could, but there just doesn't seem to be a major reason to anymore.

A lot of it has to do with movie audiences instead of the movies themselves. A packed theater should mean a more exciting movie-going experience--there's nothing like a large group people reacting positively to a great film--but now it means dealing with more and more annoyances. People just act differently in movie theaters now.

We live in a sound-bite society where the average person can't go more than 10 seconds without checking whatever personal device they are carrying. The idea of sitting in a darkened theater and spending almost two hours paying attention to what is happening on the screen seems beyond the capabilities of many.

This means that if you go to the movies and the theater is full, you are going to have to put up with plenty of distractions. And before you call me an old fogey, I'm not just referring to young whippersnappers. Bad behavior in a movie theater knows no age limit. I've found that older moviegoers are even more inclined to drive you nuts than younger ones. My theory on that is older citizens don't actual go out to the movies very much, so they don't know how to act when they are there. When I went to see UNBROKEN there was an elderly man sitting near the front who decided to start up his own audio commentary...he started making loud comments like "THAT'S A STAFF SERGEANT" and "THAT'S A B-25". Luckily the sound of the movie started drowning him out. Whenever I do encounter someone talking loudly in a theater, it is almost always an older person.

When I do go to a movie, I try to go to a weekday matinee. One of the reasons for this is that I am cheap. Another is that there won't be many people there. In the theater I try to sit high up (I can't stand sitting down in front and tilting my head back to look up at the screen), and I try to avoid sitting close to any large groups of people.

Do I appear to be an anti-social grouch? Well, when I go to watch a movie--I actually want to watch the movie.  This is another idea that many seem to have a hard time dealing with. I'm amazed when I overhear people having a nice chat with their friends while a movie happens to be in progress. There's nothing wrong with making quiet comments about the film with the person you are with--but having a personal discussion while a film is going on? I just don't get that at all.

I honestly think those who act like a darkened movie theater is their own living room don't mean to be rude. It's the way society is now--with all the multi-tasking going on, focusing on just one thing seems quaint. I go to a lot of sporting events, and the attention level there is even worse. If you are going to pay money to see a movie--or pay even more money to attend a sporting event--wouldn't you, like, want to sit and watch what you came to see? Am I the weird one for asking this question?

Set aside for a moment the human equation of going to a movie theater. I haven't even discussed the ridiculous price of movie snacks. (Do I sneak in food to the movie theater? You're darn right I do) And what about the now common practice of showing at least 30 minutes of trailers before the movie even starts? (And the ten minutes of commercials?) If I wanted to watch trailers, I can always stay home and go on YouTube.

But what gets me about the trailer thing is...I've found that audiences respond more to the trailers than they do the actual movie. I'll give you an example. Last year when I went and saw GODZILLA, one of the trailers shown was for LET'S BE COPS or WE ARE COPS or whatever the title was for some movie about guys posing as cops. The audience went absolutely nuts over it--you'd think they were watching the Three Stooges or something. When it came to the main feature, that same audience just couldn't give anywhere near the same sort of enthusiasm. My theory on this is (yes, I have another theory), modern Americans have a very short attention span, so they enjoy trailers more than a two-hour film. I think most Americans would rather just watch trailers. If someone opened up a theater and showed nothing but trailers, they would make a lot of money.

I've gone to a lot of revival showings of older films. The audiences for those screenings act differently, right? Well, not really. You may be familiar with Cinemark's Classic Series. A couple years ago, they had a special double feature of the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. During the screening many of those in the audience laughed several times--and trust me, they weren't laughing at the sardonic wit of James Whale. I think a lot of them were laughing because they felt that this was an "old movie", and it was okay to laugh at it. But once again, I have to ask--why go to the screening in the first place if you are going to laugh at it?

The sad thing is I don't think movie theater audience behavior is going to improve. So what can be done? Well, we now have 3-D showings, and IMAX showings, and Mommies with babies about showings for people that actually want to watch the movie? I'm serious about this. The theater sets aside a showing for people that want to talk, or screw around with their cell phones, or who want to eat as loudly as possible--and then the theater sets aside a showing for people who really want to watch the movie. But you know what would be the result of that happening?

The people who actually wanted to watch the movie would be charged twice as much.

Friday, May 1, 2015


This is my contribution to Shorts!--A Tiny Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently.

Taking part in a movie blogathon about short films gives me a perfect opportunity to discuss the Three Stooges. The Stooges might be the most famous short film stars of all time--their comedy series for Columbia still runs on television constantly, and probably always will. If you asked the average person on the street whether they had ever actually seen a short subject film, their response might be, "What are those?" But if you asked that same person whether they had seen a Three Stooges episode, they would know exactly what you are talking about.

I've watched the Three Stooges literally all my life. I was fascinated by them as a kid, and looking back now it's easy to see why. The crude, rapid-fire brand of slapstick, the wild & wacky situations, the crazy sound effects, and the super-fast pace of the films easily got the attention of my young mind. The Stooges were perfect for the short film format. Most of their Columbia films last between 15 to 20 minutes, and unlike most full-length comedy feature films made during the same period, there's no romantic sub-plot, or musical numbers, or burdensome plot details. In a Stooges short film, it's the boys all the way....and even if you didn't like them, you have to admit they weren't boring.

My favorite Stooges short of all time is A PLUMBING WE WILL GO, released in 1940 and directed by Del Lord, with story & screenplay by Elwood Ullman. I consider this the quintessential Stooges comedy. It was made right in the middle of what I consider the Stooges' golden period--1937-1944. During this era Moe, Larry, and Curly made their funniest comedies, and the Columbia short subject unit that supported them was running like a well-oiled machine. A PLUMBING WE WILL GO has several great Stooges elements:

The Stooges running from the law
The Stooges attempting to perform a professional service
The Stooges pretending to be something they are not
The Stooges meeting up with (and annoying) snooty high-society types

About the only thing A PLUMBING WE WILL GO doesn't have is an appearance by long-time Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent--but it does feature another famed Stooge supporting player, Bud Jamison.

The short starts with the Stooges in a familiar place--a courtroom. The boys are accused of being chicken thieves, but luckily the presiding judge doesn't buy it (Curly doesn't help things by taking his hat out of his pocket and unleashing a flurry of feathers). As soon as the Stooges get back out on the street, they wind up in trouble again with Bud Jamison's angry cop. With the unknowing help of street magician Professor Bilbo, the Stooges manage to get away and steal a plumber's van. Incredibly , the swanky house they park the van in front of has just called for a plumber--so the Stooges, fearing arrest by the pursuing Jamison, act like they are plumbers.

After the boys go down to the basement, Moe sends Curly upstairs to shut off the water. What follows may be the high point of Curly Howard's entire film career. Instead of stopping the water Curly just makes it flow more and more (Curly's facial expressions and body language during this scene are a wonder to behold). Curly's solution to stopping the water is to keep adding pipes to it over and over again, until he is surrounded by them--one of the great visual moments in Stooge history.

Curly's greatest screen moment?

With the water still flowing Moe tells Larry to turn the water off outside. Larry winds up ruining the lawn (when the butler tells Larry to stop, the middle Stooge gives the servant a shovelful of sod in the face). Curly escapes his pipe prison by drilling a hole in the floor, which causes him to fall straight down into the basement, angering Moe (as if Moe needed angering in the first place). Moe tells Curly to find some more pipe...and Curly does, but as he explains to Moe, "The pipe is filled with wires!!"

Of course the wires are electrical wires...and the Stooges replace those wires with water, causing every electrical device in the house to start spouting like a geyser. African-American actor Dudley Dickerson gets a showcase scene as the house cook who reacts to seeing his kitchen take the brunt of the Stooges' "repairs". Some of today's viewers might consider Dickerson's role to be politically incorrect, but the man is genuinely funny--as a matter of fact, Dickerson almost steals the short from the Stooges.

While this is going on the lady of the house decides to show her guests a brand new "television receiver". She tunes in to a broadcast from Niagara Falls--and soon a real waterfall comes through the screen. (Is this the earliest use of a television set as a comic gag in movie history?)

Finally the owner of the house comes in, finds out what is going on, and heads off to confront the idiots who have ruined his home....and the owner is none other than the judge who let the Stooges off at the beginning of the short! The judge falls through the hole Curly made in the upstairs bathroom....and once again the Stooges are on the run, jumping into the giant hole Larry made in the yard, and then interrupting Professor Bilbo's magic act yet again.

A PLUMBING WE WILL GO starts off with a very simple premise--all the Stooges have to do is fix a small leak--but that premise builds and builds, until the house the Stooges are working in takes on more water than an ocean (as Moe says, "This ain't a house, it's a sieve!!") The Stooges are not plumbers, and they know nothing about plumbing, but they carry on anyway, absolutely confident in everything they do. You can call the Stooges stupid, but they have an assurance about them that puts them on another level among classic film comedians.

Many Stooge fans look upon Del Lord as the best short subject director the boys worked with, and he keeps the story moving so fast you don't have time to do anything but laugh. That's the main reason why the Stooges comedies work so well so many years after they were made--they're as quickly edited as any action sequence in a 21st Century comic-book movie.

The Three Stooges were masters of the short comedy subject, and A PLUMBING WE WILL GO features them at the height of their powers. If you ever meet someone who has no idea who the Three Stooges are (if such a person exists), you should show them A PLUMBING WE WILL GO. It sums up the Three Stooges perfectly.