Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Kino Lorber has released on Blu-ray the 1934 German science-fiction drama GOLD. What makes this film important for movie geeks is the fact that it features Brigitte Helm, the legendary star of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS...and you get to hear her speak!
GOLD concerns the attempts of German scientist Professor Holk (Hans Albers) to transform common lead into gold, through a process known as atomic fracturing. Holk is working on the project with his mentor Prof. Achenbach, when a saboteur destroys their fracturing machine. Achenbach is killed in the explosion, while the severely injured Holt is saved by a blood transfusion from his finacee (Lien Deyers). Holt recovers, and is given an offer to work again on atomic fracturing for a British millionaire named Wills. Holt accepts, because he is convinced that the millionaire was behind the sabotage of his earlier experiments. This time Holt wants to do the sabotaging--but once he gets a look at the fantastic underground fracturing plant built by Wills on the coast of Scotland, the scientist believes he just might be able to achieve his goal of manufacturing gold.
GOLD is more of a stately, thoughtful film than an out-and-out thrilling sci-fi tale. Holt's determination to turn lead into gold stems from trying to prove the theories of his late mentor Achenbach than from any quest for monetary success. At 117 minutes, GOLD has a very languid pace to it, and those viewers expecting any wild German Expressionistic flights of fancy will be disappointed. Hans Albers was a huge star in Germany during the late 1920s-early 1930s, but in this movie at least, he doesn't have what you would call a dynamic personality. He seems to me more of a character actor-type than a big-time leading man.
The female stars of GOLD will be of more interest than the leading man. Brigitte Helm plays the daughter of British billionaire Wills, and she's decked out in some rather exotic costumes. Helm's character is set up as something of a society playgirl, but she becomes quite intrigued with Prof. Holt (although there isn't really any reason why she should). Helm achieved her fame in the silent era, but in GOLD she shows she acquitted herself rather well to the era of sound. Helm cuts a glamorous figure here, and it's a shame there wasn't more for her to do in the film. (I do have to say that in no way was I ever convinced Helm was a rich Englishwoman.)
The other main female role in GOLD is that of Holt's very pretty (and very young) fiancee, played by Lien Deyers. Film buffs will remember Deyers for her role as the devious femme fatale in another Fritz Lang silent epic, SPIES. Deyers, just like Brigitte Helm, gives a very opposite performance in GOLD than the one she did for Fritz Lang. Deyers is totally devoted to Holt, despite the fact that Holt appears old enough to be her father.
The real star of GOLD is the giant atomic fracturing machine built by Wills. It is a magnificent set--so magnificent, in fact, much footage of it was used nearly twenty years later in the sci-fi movie THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (which Kino has also released on Blu-ray). Of course, a set like this calls out for a massive destruction scene, and we get it in spades.
GOLD was produced by the legendary German UFA film company, and it was directed by Karl Hartl. By 1934 the Nazis were firmly in power, but in GOLD there isn't any major heavy-handed political themes trotted out, other than the idea of a British big-businessman who is willing to destroy the world's economic balance in his quest to make gold. The character of Holt isn't so much anti-capitalist as he is anti-greed--his efforts are more altruistic than political.
The print used for Kino's Blu-ray of GOLD is serviceable, but it is nowhere near the pristine quality of the company's releases of German silent films. (I've seen a version of GOLD on YouTube and it has the same quality that Kino's release has.) The movie is in German with optional English subtitles. There are no extras, and that's a shame--this movie could really use a commentary from an expert on classic German cinema.
GOLD is best suited for those who would be interested in seeing more of Brigitte Helm than just her appearance in METROPOLIS. (It would be fantastic if Kino came out with more Brigitte Helm films.) This movie has interest for film geeks, but it is not on the same level as the Fritz Lang masterpieces made in Germany.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
The Warner Archive Collection has just released John Ford's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON on Blu-ray. This is a film that I'm sure most movie buffs already own on DVD, or at least a film they have seen several times. For this Blu-ray Warners had a new interpositive made from three different negatives of the film-I'm not a technical geek so I can't really tell you what that exactly means, but I can tell you how it looks.
Simply put, it looks astounding. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON was filmed in Technicolor on location in John Ford's beloved Monument Valley, and it always looked beautiful--cinematographer Winton Hoch won an Oscar for his work--but this Blu-ray makes it even more stunning. It's as if the movie was made yesterday instead of the late 1940s. The image is so deep in color, and so clear, that at times one feels that the movie is in 3-D (especially with the majestic rock formations of Monument Valley forming a background to the action). The vibrancy of the color might just even put off those viewers who are used to the typical desaturated movies of the 21st Century.
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is one of my top 50 favorite movies of all time. The second film in director John Ford's so-called "Cavalry Trilogy", SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON isn't so much a straight story as it is a series of related incidents revolving around the last week of U.S. Army service for retiring Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne). Brittles tries his hardest to keep the peace on the frontier outpost he is based on before he leaves, all the while guiding the young officers who will be taking his place.
I know there are still a lot of folks who don't think John Wayne was a fine actor. He wasn't an Olivier type, but he didn't have to be because he was John Wayne--and nobody could play John Wayne like....John Wayne. Actually the role of Nathan Brittles is somewhat of a departure for the Duke. Capt. Brittles is about 20 years older than Wayne's age when the actor made this film. Wayne is given a subtle old-age makeup (and a mustache), and he plays Brittles with a understated delicacy that more than proves he was a far better performer than most people are willing to admit. Wayne was nominated for an Oscar in 1949 for SANDS OF IWO JIMA, but he should have been nominated for SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON.
As for the movie itself...is it overly sentimental? Yes. Is it about as historically accurate as a dime novel? Probably....but it is John Ford at the top of his game, and a true piece of American folk art. If you have read a few of my posts over the years you know how much I revere John Ford. I could watch SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON over and over again, and seeing this restored print on Blu-ray is almost like a revelation.
I'm well aware there are a few movie buffs who try to avoid double dipping when it comes to home video purchases...but I heartily endorse getting this Blu-ray, even if you already own SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON on DVD. It really does look that great. And if I may say so, this would be a perfect gift for a younger (or older) person who is starting to get into classic film.
Saturday, June 18, 2016
The latest issue of Richard Klemensen's wonderful LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS--issue #36--is a full-length examination of the 1979 version of DRACULA, starring Frank Langella and directed by John Badham. I had not seen the '79 DRACULA in a long time, and I wasn't too impressed with it when I did see it....but I decided that before I delved into LSOH #36, I had better re-acquaint myself with the movie. (All the information in this post comes from Constantine Nasr's impressive and extensive article detailing the complete history of the '79 DRACULA.)
I watched the '79 DRACULA through Xfinity On Demand. The print looked magnificent, though a bit muted color-wise (more on that later). The '79 DRACULA is a better movie than I remember it being...but I still can't say it is one of my favorite versions of Bram Stoker's immortal tale.
The impetus for the production of this DRACULA was the smash 1970s Broadway revival of the play which was based on Stoker's work. Frank Langella starred as the Count, and he became a sensation among theater critics and audiences. After seeing the play, producer Walter Mirisch was so impressed by it he decided to undertake a new film version with Universal Studios, the company who of course had made the seminal 1931 DRACULA with Bela Lugosi. John Badham, who was riding the success of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, was hired to direct, and it was decided that the film had to be made in England. There was never any doubt about having Frank Langella reprise his Dracula on the big screen.
Badham and screenwriter W. D. Richter knew they couldn't just make a filmed version of the play. The '79 DRACULA isn't really like the play, the Lugosi movie, or Stoker's novel--it is a mixture of all three. You could go as far to say that Richter and Badham essentially did a "re-boot". Like the filmmakers of today, they took an iconic character, used several classic elements that were familiar to movie audiences, and made enough subtle changes to come up with something that was recognizable yet different.
The '79 DRACULA starts out with the Count already on his way to England, and causing the ship transporting him to crash near his destination of Whitby. It's a spectacular sequence, with fine model work of the ship, but opening the movie like this leaves out what I think is one of the best parts of Stoker's novel: Jonathan Harker's meeting with Dracula in Transylvania. The result is that Carfax Abbey, the Count's "new" residence in England, becomes the replacement for the Castle Dracula we never get to see (if anything, this Carfax Abbey looks more like a Castle Dracula than other Castle Draculas have).
Like many other Dracula films, the '79 version eliminates several characters--and several locations--from Stoker's book. Other than the Count, the main characters are Harker (Trevor Eve), Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan), Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasence), Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), and Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis). Yes, in this version the character of Mina is Van Helsing's daughter. The two main locations in the '79 DRACULA are the Seward home/sanitarium, and Carfax Abbey.
The first time we really get to see Dracula is when he attacks Renfield inside Carfax Abbey. It's a quick moment, and a rather abrupt introduction. The viewer is fully shown Dracula when he arrives as a guest at the Seward home, where he soon enraptures Lucy and Mina.
Langella is a very good Dracula. He certainly has a commanding screen presence, which I believe is one of the major factors in successfully portraying such a legendary role. Yet I have to say I found his Count to be somewhat reserved. This may be due to differences the actor and director Badham had on how to properly show Dracula on screen. This is a more romantic interpretation of the Count than is usually seen. (This really wasn't all that much of a ground breaker as people usually assumed when the '79 DRACULA came out--Dan Curtis had already touched upon the idea of romantic vampires with his DARK SHADOWS TV show and his own Dracula adaptation starring Jack Palance.) One of the reasons why Langella's stage Dracula was so well received was due to his popularity with the ladies, and the movie tries to feed off of that. Langella's Dracula has to be the best-looking one of all--he has the best hair of any actor who's ever played the Count, that's for sure. (I'd even say that Langella's coif is one of the film's best special effects.)
The member of the cast who impressed me the most was Kate Nelligan as Lucy. Nelligan is the leading lady of the film, and even though her character is engaged to Jonathan Harker, the leading lady of Dracula as well. Nelligan isn't a Helen Chandler-type weakling...her Lucy is a strong, intelligent, modern woman, who is still able to convince us that she is intrigued and attracted to the Count. A actress who was a bigger star, or an actress who was more of a generic "sex symbol" type, would not have been able to make the role of Lucy work. Nelligan's believable performance gives the entire movie a solid foundation.
Laurence Olivier's Van Helsing is a far cry from the archetypal vampire hunter that Peter Cushing played so many times. Since in this version Mina is Van Helsing's daughter, the man has to personally destroy her...which means this time Dracula's main enemy is not assured and determined, he's doubtful, hurt, and confused. I'm not big on the idea of Mina being related to Van Helsing, or Olivier's take on the role (of course, since Peter Cushing is my favorite actor, I'm obviously biased when it comes to how Van Helsing should be realized). Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Seward as a bit of a fool. Pleasence spends the entire movie eating or snacking on food, and while it's cute at the beginning, the practice becomes very annoying. Trevor Eve is okay as Jonathan Harker but the part doesn't give him much of a chance to shine when he's up against scene-stealers like Olivier & Pleasence.
The best things about the '79 DRACULA are its background details--the production design, the costumes, the entire visual aspect of the film. Seeing the '79 DRACULA in HD widescreen brought out the sets in stunning detail, and the lushness of the photography. Cinematographer Frank Tidy was replaced by Gilbert Taylor during the shooting of the '79 DRACULA, but you couldn't tell that from the final product. Special mention needs to be made of John Williams' music--it's one of his most unusual and underrated scores. In his LSOH article Constantine Nasr mentions that for the latest home video release of the '79 DRACULA, director John Badham desaturated the colors--a decision he wanted to do for the original theatrical release. I assume that the '79 DRACULA I saw through Xfinity was also desaturated--there wasn't a lot of vibrancy to the color scheme. Personally I think more color would have made the movie look better.
There were a few other things I liked about the '79 DRACULA. The scenes showing Dracula scaling the walls of buildings are effectively well-staged (once again I must point out that the Count had crawled the wall before in a movie--Hammer's THE SCARS OF DRACULA, albeit very briefly). The drawing-room confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing--one that was also used in the original play and the 1931 DRACULA--is a highlight....ironically this sequence was only included at the insistence of Frank Langella.
But there are certain things about the movie that prevent me from calling it a great vampire film. The Seward Asylum really does seem to be run by the inmates--the patients seem to roam around at will, howling and screaming all the while. I'm sure that the reason for this was to give the story a sense of unease, but the lackadaisical way Seward runs the place seems silly, even for Edwardian England (and I doubt that someone like Lucy Seward would have approved of it). The red-tinged "love scene" between Lucy and the Count would fit well in a 1980s Lifetime TV movie. And the ending features Dracula staking Van Helsing--that may be ironic, but I've always felt that was a too easy way to surprise the audience. Dracula's final comeuppance--hoisted up from the hold of a ship and exposed to the rays of the sun--reminds me of the many spectacular demises devised for the Count by Hammer Films. We don't even get to see Dracula totally disintegrate...we seem him start to, but the camera cuts away and we are shown what appears to be a bat-like figure flying out to sea, and a close-up of Lucy with a slight smile on her face--re-enforcing the idea that Dracula is the real romantic hero of the story.
Once again, I have to say that the '79 DRACULA is a very good movie--but's it not my personal idea of a great Dracula adaptation. I will admit that in my opinion Stoker's novel has never been properly told on the big (or little) screen. The book is very densely layered, and it constantly switches from one person's point of view to another. The best way to adapt it would be as a five or six-part miniseries....but if someone did make a Dracula totally faithful to Stoker, I doubt a 21st mainstream audience would find it appealing. The '79 DRACULA was made for a mainstream audience, instead of monster movie buffs.
Whatever your personal feelings on the '79 DRACULA, issue #36 of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS is worth buying and reading. Constantine Nasr has to be commended for providing as much information as one could want on this film, and the artwork inside the magazine--artwork inspired by the '79 DRACULA--is the icing on the cake.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
After I shared my post on DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! with the "Hammer Films NOT Horror" Facebook group, the administrator, Paul Meadez, asked if I would be interested in writing about another film on the Mill Creek Hammer DVD set--NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, also known as NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER in England. This is a movie that's about as far away from the expected Hammer product as you can get--but it is also a well-made, sincere, yet suspenseful look at the delicate subject of child molestation, impressively directed by Cyril Frankel.
Despite the fact that NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER was made in 1960, it remains one of the most adult and serious looks at what many consider to be a 21st Century problem. This film could easily be remade with just a little bit of updating, and it still would not lose its power. The story revolves around Peter and Sally Carter, and their 9-year old daughter Jean. Peter has just moved his family to a small Canadian town from England in order to take up the position of Principal of the local high school. Peter and his wife are shocked to find out from Jean that she and her friend Lucille took their clothes off after being asked to by the elderly Mr. Olderberry in exchange for candy. Mr. Olderberry also happens to be the head of the town's most prominent family. Peter is met with derision and doubt by the rest of the community, but he decides to press charges and take the case to court, especially after he and his wife find out that Mr. Olderberry's "eccentricities" are well known among the townspeople.
The trial goes badly--Jean is intimidated by the defense attorney, and Peter decides to drop the case in order to prevent his daughter from going through the entire ordeal. Peter, disgusted at the town's attitude about the affair, turns in his resignation from the school and prepares to move his family away. Before he can, however, Jean and Lucille wind up encountering Mr. Olderberry in the large forest outside of town--and the tale comes to a shattering conclusion.
NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER is definitely worth seeing, but it is not an easy film to watch, especially if the viewer has young children. There's nothing explicit or gruesome about it--the movie is tastefully filmed in ultra-sharp black & white widescreen by cinematographer (and future Hammer director) Freddie Francis--but the gravity of the situation facing the main characters lasts longer in the memory than any gory details would. You can't help but feel for the plight of the Carter family--they've done nothing wrong, and they've tried to go about things the right and proper way--but they are the ones who are ostracized and accused (a result that still happens to victims of abuse all too often today). Patrick Allen plays Peter Carter. Allen was an actor who had a strong masculine presence, and that makes his problem all the more frustrating--he wants to lash out and protect his daughter, but he also doesn't want to break the law himself (and, as an educator, he has a certain reputation to uphold). Gwen Watford plays Mrs. Carter, who goes through her own mental agony, and Janine Faye, best known to Hammer fans for her role in HORROR OF DRACULA, is excellent as Jean. Most child actors are either too cute or act too adult--Faye comes off as a very realistic 9 year old girl who is obviously confused and upset with all that is happening around her.
The role of Mr. Olderberry, a character who is more of a monster than anything one finds in a Hammer chiller, is played by British character actor Felix Aylmer (Hammer lovers will know him from his performance as Peter Cushing's father in THE MUMMY). Aylmer is amazingly effective, considering he doesn't even say one line of dialogue. Aylmer manages to be creepily sinister, yet still frail and elderly, all at the same time. The sequence in which Olderberry chases the young girls through the forest (actually Black Park) is one of the most gripping ever filmed in the entire Hammer canon.
If you've never heard of, or have never seen NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, don't feel too bad. It's a movie that I can't remember ever being shown on television, and I didn't see it until it came out on DVD in America for the first time a few years ago. It's not surprising that this film isn't very well-known--how many people would choose to watch a drama about child molestation as a way to pass the time? The fact that it was produced by Hammer probably hurt the movie's reputation--most folks would have assumed that the company was using a serious social problem as a easy way to sensationalize and shock. NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER is not sensational or cheap. It works as both a straight drama and a suspenseful tale, and even though the subject matter may make most viewers uneasy, it deserves to be seen at least once. The film's story has more truth to it than fiction--what the Carters go through is something that unfortunately many people go through all over the world, every single day.
Many consider the "glory days" of Hammer Films to be between the years of 1958 and 1962--and usually the "glory days" are referring to the company's best horror films made during that period. But let's not forget that three of the best non-horror Hammers were made at that time--HELL IS A CITY, YESTERDAY'S ENEMY, and NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER. These are three very different films--crime drama, war drama, social drama--yet they stand up to any similar product made by more "important" studios. Hammer wasn't just a great horror company....they were a great film company, period, and NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM STRANGER shows how diverse they actually were.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
I recently purchased a DVD set of Hammer films released by Mill Creek Entertainment. The two-disc set has six movies total: THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE SNORKEL, NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, MANIAC, CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT, and DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! The last two films I have listed are ones I did not have on home video, so basically I bought this set for them....but since I got the set for only $10, I thought it was a good deal.
For the purposes of this post I'll be reviewing DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (released in England as FANATIC). This movie was made in 1964, and released the following year. It is considered one of Hammer's psychological thrillers, or as some have called them, "mini Hitchcocks". This production also falls into a mini-genre given the very politically incorrect sobriquet of "old hag thrillers". The "old hag" horror film started with Robert Aldrich's very successful WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, which starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Both women would go on to star in other similar features to BABY JANE--Davis would go on to work for Hammer twice, and Crawford would spend most of the rest of her movie career working for exploitation masters William Castle and Herman Cohen.
The idea of having once-glamorous female Hollywood stars play dangerous harridans gained a lot of traction in the mid-1960s. Hammer Films joined in by hiring Tallulah Bankhead to play the role of fanatical Mrs. Trefoile in DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! Bankhead was more known as a infamous diva than a popular mainstream actress, but having someone with such a larger-than-life personality in one of their films was a major coup for Hammer. A very young (and very American) Stefanie Powers was picked to play the story's damsel in distress.
The movie begins with the beautiful Pat (Powers) arriving in England with her fiancee, Alan. Pat reveals to Alan that she intends to visit the mother of her late boyfriend, Stephen. Alan tries to dissuade her of the idea, but Pat, like so many other young women in thriller films, refuses to take good advice. Pat takes Alan's car and travels to Stephen's mother's home, a large ramshackle house on the banks of the Thames.
Pat soon learns that Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead) has a very twisted understanding of the Christian religion. Pat, who feels a bit sorry for the old woman, bears with Mrs. Trefoile's eccentricities the best she can.....but the young woman winds up paying for her good intentions. Even though her son is dead, Mrs. Trefoile is convinced that Pat still "belongs" to him...and she is determined to "cleanse" Pat of her sins. Pat is forced into the old house's attic where she is locked up and held against her will.
The rest of the film details the many travails Pat goes through as she attempts to escape her predicament. She tries to play mind games with Mrs. Trefoile's servants, but they have secrets of their own, which prevent them from helping Pat. The dimwitted groundskeeper (and early and showy role for Donald Sutherland) is no help, and Mrs. Trefoile becomes more and more deranged as the situation goes on. The climax takes place in the cellar, and even uses the "swinging light revealing a corpse" scene from PSYCHO.
DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! is one of the best of Hammer's mini-Hitchcocks, even though at 96 minutes it's somewhat long for such material. The clash between the two female leads is accentuated by the acting style of both ladies--Stephanie Powers is naturalistic and modern, while Tallulah Bankhead is theatrical and over-the-top. Powers goes through the ringer here (though it certainly isn't anywhere near what young actresses have to deal with in the horror films of today). Stefanie's attractive and likable screen presence makes the audience interested and worried about her plight. Tallulah Bankhead plays against her usual image of a jaded socialite and makes Mrs. Trefoile into a very menacing character indeed. Apparently Ms. Bankhead wasn't all that happy with the fact that she was making this film--did that affect her performance? If it did, it was for the movie's benefit. (I also have to wonder if Bankhead might have had some jealousy over having to co-star with Stefanie Powers.)
Even though DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! is a Hammer production, it doesn't really feel like one. The director (Silvio Narizzano) and cinematographer (Arthur Ibbetson) were not Hammer regulars, and the script was written by famed fantastic author Richard Matheson--who was a far more accomplished writer than Hammer's Anthony Hinds and Jimmy Sangster. The interiors were filmed at Elstree instead of the usual Bray Studios, and the wonderful house used as the residence of Mrs. Trefoile is not Oakley Court. Even the supporting cast is without the typical faces one sees in a Hammer film. Hard core Hammer fans may be disappointed with the absence of so many of the company's expected traits, but I for one think it's kind of refreshing. Most of the Hammer psychological thrillers were directed by Freddie Francis, written by Jimmy Sangster, and filmed in black & white. While these films are all well-done and entertaining, they are all variations on the same theme. DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! is in color, and if you didn't know it came from Hammer, you'd be surprised to find out it did.
Stefanie Powers assuredly deserves to be on the list of famous "Hammer hotties" (she would work for Hammer again about five years later in the movie CRESCENDO). Tallulah Bankhead (who never made another feature film after DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!) also deserves credit as one of Hammer's most memorable monsters. DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! isn't one of Hammer's most famous productions, but it should probably get more attention than some of their more well-remembered titles. It's another example that there was way more to the company than Cushing, Lee, and Terence Fisher. If you haven't seen this movie, and are interested in this type of material, I suggest you check it out. There isn't a whole lot of gore or violence in it, but the suspense is maintained throughout.
As for the Mill Creek set....there are three movies on each disc, and there are no extras. These films have not been remastered in any way, but they are all in anamorphic widescreen, and the picture quality is excellent on all of the features. At around $10, this makes a perfect starter set for anyone beginning to get into Hammer films, or a great pickup for those who are missing certain Hammer titles in their home video collections.
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
I'm on vacation this week, so that gives me time to stay up late and find movies that I haven't seen on YouTube. (Yes, I lead an exciting life.) The other night I watched VOODOO MAN, the infamous Poverty Row "horror" film starring Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, and John Carradine. That movie literally did put me to sleep.
Last night I stumbled upon THE HORROR OF IT ALL, a 1964 horror-comedy directed by the legendary Terence Fisher, best known for his Hammer Gothic tales with Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee. THE HORROR OF IT ALL was produced by B movie maven Robert Lippert, who had helped distribute many Hammer films during the early 1950s--including some directed by Terence Fisher. After THE HORROR OF IT ALL, Fisher and Lippert would make the science-fiction film THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING.
When it comes to horror comedies, very few of them wind up succeeding. The best of this mini-genre by far is Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, because it specifically parodies actual scenes from classic horror cinema. (I would rate ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN second-best.) Most horror comedies are set in old houses and deal with underwhelming leading men facing off against phony scare routines. The result usually is a movie that isn't funny or thrilling. Even if a horror comedy does feature actual horror stars, that's no guarantee that the film will turn out well--have you ever tried to sit through the Kay Kyser vehicle YOU'LL FIND OUT, with Karloff, Lugosi, and Peter Lorre?
Unfortunately THE HORROR OF IT ALL falls into the "isn't funny or thrilling" category. Instead of a true established comic, the main lead here is Pat Boone, of all people. When one mentions Pat Boone today, most people will respond with a derisive comment, but here he's really not all that bad. He certainly isn't Bob Hope, but he's a pleasant enough fellow and he does what he can within the limitations of the script. Boone does get to sing one song--the rather obvious-named "The Horror of It All", which has the crooner going on about ghosts and ghoulies. It's the type of song one would expect to hear at a Halloween party for 9-year old kids.
Speaking of 9-year old kids, it seems that most of THE HORROR OF IT ALL is aimed at that particular age group. It would seem that a horror comedy made in the early 1960s would have all sorts of opportunities to make fun of the contemporary Hammer or American-International product--but those opportunities are never taken advantage of. THE HORROR OF IT ALL bears a great resemblance to Hammer's own horror comedy of the early 1960s--their remake of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Both films were directed by a horror legend (THE OLD DARK HOUSE was directed by William Castle), and both films feature a very lightweight leading man. Both films are set in a remote English mansion, and both films have a cast of eccentric British character actors. Both films also have two young female roles--one is supposedly sweet & innocent, and the other is creepy & aggressive.
There's one other main thing that both THE HORROR OF IT ALL and the Hammer version of THE OLD DARK HOUSE have in common--they're both dopey rather than funny. THE HORROR OF IT ALL starts out with Pat Boone driving down rain-slicked London streets in the middle of the night, backed by composer Douglas Gamley's jazzy main title theme. Watching this gives one the impression the movie appears to be a German krimi thriller--but things literally go downhill soon after, as Boone's character manages to push his car down into a ravine, and he winds up stranded at his fiancee's house, surrounded by her bizarre relatives.
The bizarre relatives are played by such accomplished thespians as Valentine Dyall and Dennis Price, but they are sadly underused. (Price, playing one of his usual caddish roles, is especially wasted.) The performer who really steals the show is Andree Melly, famous among fanboys for her small but memorable role in Hammer's THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, directed of course by Terence Fisher. Melly plays cousin Natalia, a Vampira/Morticia Addams take-off. She's about as close to "Goth" as you can get in 1964, and THE HORROR OF IT ALL would have been a lot better if it had focused more on her instead of Pat Boone and his bland girlfriend (who basically is the "Marilyn Munster" of this strange family).
Dennis Price and Andree Melly in THE HORROR OF IT ALL
The plot is the standard horror-comedy tale involving relatives being killed off over a large inheritance. There's a twist ending which doesn't make a lot of sense, but in this movie, what does?
The main reason for anyone to watch THE HORROR OF IT ALL (unless you happen to be obsessed over Pat Boone) is because of the director, Terence Fisher. Fisher has often been rated too highly by his defenders, and too low by those who consider him a "workmanlike" director. My opinion is that Fisher was a very good director, not a great one....but he could raise his game when the circumstances were right. When it comes to THE HORROR OF IT ALL, I have to admit that Fisher's approach here was very...well, workmanlike. The movie is shot and staged competently...and that's about it. There's no inspiration here, no attempt to bring more to the script. It may be that Fisher was uncomfortable with sending up horror, or that light comedy wasn't he style. (Fisher's typical idea of a comic scene in one of his Hammer films was to let Miles Malleson loose for about a couple minutes.) It may also have been that Fisher was discouraged by having to do low-budget work for Robert Lippert during this period (depending on what source you read, Fisher supposedly was "in exile" from Hammer around this time due to the unenthusiastic reception given to his direction of 1962's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA). Whatever the reason, if you're looking for Fisher's well-known tightly edited scenes of shock and surprise, or his underlining mood reflecting "the charm of evil", you're not going to find them here--not that they would belong in a lighthearted horror spoof in the first place.
THE HORROR OF IT ALL will be mainly of interest to Hammer fanatics. It's a movie that looks old-fashioned for the time it was made--and considering that it starred Pat Boone, and came out during the height of Beatlemania, I'm sure those who saw the movie on its original release probably felt the same way.
Saturday, June 4, 2016
This is my contribution to The Royalty On Film Blogathon, hosted by theflapperdamefilm.wordpress.com.
I have to admit that I am not one of those many, many people who have an affection and an intense interest in the British Royal Family. It constantly amazes me how anything connected to the British Royals automatically becomes the trending topic of the day once it is unleashed on the internet. If you want to draw people to your Facebook page, Twitter account, or website, just post something--anything--about the Royals (especially Princess Diana), and you're sure to get a response.
I've never really understood why the British Royals exert such a continuing fascination, and that's with me even knowing someone who is a huge Royalty fan. (I'm sure, though, that there are plenty of folks who shake their heads at my love of the Chicago White Sox and classic horror and science-fiction films).
The obsession over the British Royals is certainly not a modern development--Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote about the various Kings & Queens of England. And it is to the time of Shakespeare that we must go back to in the interest of this post.
Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603), Queen of England from 1558-1603
Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled over England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603, remains one of the most famous figures in world history. Even those who have no interest in European Monarchy know the basics of her life. There's no doubt that Elizabeth had to have been a magnetic and forceful personality to not just rule so long, but to even survive--consider what happened to her mother Anne Boleyn, and her cousin Lady Jane Grey and her half-sister Mary Tudor. The woman so dominated her time that an entire era was named after her--the Elizabethan Age.
A woman who held so much power and majesty cannot help but draw the attention of those who wish to dramatize her. If there is such a thing as a prime role for an actress, it is Elizabeth I. Since the invention of movies, many great female stars have portrayed the legendary Queen Bess--Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett--but for me the best Elizabeth of them all was the English character actress Flora Robson.
Flora Robson had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and already had a distinguished stage career when she first played Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's British super-production of FIRE OVER ENGLAND in 1937. Robson was only in her thirties when she appeared in this film. FIRE OVER ENGLAND is set in the 1580s, when Elizabeth was in her fifties.
Flora Robson in FIRE OVER ENGLAND
Robson gets first billing in FIRE OVER ENGLAND, and I'm sure she probably thought the movie would do for her what Korda's THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII did for the career of Charles Laughton. Robson's Elizabeth is somewhat overshadowed, however, by the love story between the characters of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The couple had a torrid off-screen romance as well, and they may have affected their performances--both Olivier and Leigh are not only uncommonly good-looking, they are uncommonly hammy as well. Robson apparently wasn't too happy about the amount of attention on-set that was given to the young couple.
Putting aside the roles of Olivier & Leigh, FIRE OVER ENGLAND remains a magnificently mounted production, with sublime black & white photography from James Wong Howe. The sets and costumes are breathtaking (did 16th Century England really look this good?), and the story brings the viewer right into England's battle with the Spanish Armada. But the main highlight of FIRE OVER ENGLAND is Flora Robson's Elizabeth. She's everything one would imagine a great Queen to be--commanding, authoritative, cunning, yet still much concerned with the welfare of her people. In FIRE OVER ENGLAND Elizabeth has to do a balancing act between currying favor with Spain and still secretly preparing for war with that country. Robson is excellent in showing the Queen's machinations, and she does it without the self-pity that shows up in many other actress's portrayals of Elizabeth. There is one small scene where Elizabeth reflects on her looks ("This mirror needs replaced"), but Robson's Queen has no time for such thoughts--she has a country to run and a people to protect.
Robson's Queen treats Olivier & Leigh as children (possibly Robson's real-life feelings about the couple had something to do with this), and she treats the rest of her court in the manner that they deserve. One of the best scenes in FIRE OVER ENGLAND has Elizabeth personally spoon-feeding one of her most trusted, and elderly, minsters. Another standout scene happens right before the Armada battle, when the Queen confronts a group of ministers who have been conspiring against her. Instead of having them executed outright, Elizabeth dresses them down verbally instead--and the traitors are so awed by this moment they all swear new allegiance to her (I still wouldn't have trusted these guys as far as I could have throw them). Only an actress as talented as Flora Robson could have pulled this scene off.
The movie ends with the Spanish Armada defeated, and Elizabeth leading her people in thanks to God for the salvation of England. If you are not an Anglophile before you watch FIRE OVER ENGLAND, Flora Robson's speech at the climax will make you one.
Flora Robson was so impressive as Queen Elizabeth in FIRE OVER ENGLAND that she got to play the role again a few years later--this time in a Hollywood film, a movie even bigger and bolder than anything Alexander Korda could have dreamed up. THE SEA HAWK (1940), produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz, is in my opinion one of the greatest "swashbuckling" films of all time. (I even wrote about THE SEA HAWK for a Swashbucklers blogathon in November of 2015.) Starring the one-and-only Errol Flynn, THE SEA HAWK is almost a remake of FIRE OVER ENGLAND (yes, even as far back as the 1930s and 40s Hollywood was remaking or re-booting foreign product). The main difference between THE SEA HAWK and FIRE OVER ENGLAND is that the former picture is a Errol Flynn vehicle all the way--Robson's Elizabeth has more of a supporting role, but she plays an important part in the proceedings nonetheless.
Flora Robson as Elizabeth in THE SEA HAWK
Warner Bros. had already made a film featuring Queen Elizabeth and a character played by Flynn--THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX. Bette Davis played the Queen in that one, and the focus of the story was on the relationship between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex. Davis' portrayal of the Queen is now famous, but I much prefer Robson over her--Davis' Elizabeth is sullen and petulant. It didn't help the film (which is slow and tedious) that Davis and Flynn had no chemistry together. Warner Bros. decided that THE SEA HAWK would be filled with the adventure of the Elizabethan Age instead of any heavy drama about the Queen's personal life.
Robson in THE SEA HAWK is as commanding as ever, but this time she gets to show some wry humor in her scenes with Errol Flynn. Flynn plays one of the many sea captains who are performing what amounts to legal piracy in the service of England over Spain. Officially Elizabeth is supposed to be against these men, but behind the scenes she supports them. Elizabeth treats Flynn the way a "good girl" reacts to a "bad boy"--with a mixture of exasperation and flirty charm. It's obvious when one watches THE SEA HAWK that Robson enjoyed acting alongside Flynn, and that makes her Elizabeth that much more human--and enjoyable--to the viewer. (There's a story that during the filming of a famous climatic scene where Elizabeth bursts in on a sword fight between Flynn and the Queen's enemies, Robson yelled out "All right! Break it up, boys!"--a joke suggested by the roguish Errol.)
THE SEA HAWK does not show the Spanish Armada battle, but it leads right up to it--giving Robson another chance to make a powerfully moving patriotic speech. This time her speech had even more emotional weight, what with England at war with Germany in real life. Winston Churchill himself couldn't have done any better, and supposedly he was hugely impressed with THE SEA HAWK.
Flora Robson had the very unique chance to play one of the most famous monarchs in world history in two very different yet in some ways very similar feature films. The result is that she set a standard for cinema Royalty that continues to this day. THE SEA HAWK is one of my favorite 100 movies of all time, and having first seen it when I was young, I can't help but always think of Flora Robson whenever Queen Elizabeth I is mentioned. I certainly can't vouch for the historical accuracy of FIRE OVER ENGLAND or THE SEA HAWK, or even Flora Robson's portrayal of the great Queen. But if I somehow had the chance to take a trip in Doctor Who's TARDIS, and I happened to meet the real Queen Elizabeth I....I'd be very disappointed if she wasn't like Flora Robson.
Friday, June 3, 2016
I'm trying something new today--a vocal blog post instead of a written one. The link below is to a recording of my thoughts on X-MEN: APOCALYPSE. Please let me know if you'd like to hear more posts like these. You can also access this link from The Hitless Wonder Movie Facebook Page.