Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Joan Crawford Blogathon--TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP

When it comes to the definition of "movie star", almost no one fulfills that better than Joan Crawford. Her decades-long movie career, her poor background, her various real-life romances, the numerous stories & legends about her personal behavior--it's almost as if her entire life was written by a Hollywood screenwriter. She even had a infamous movie made about her. The persona of "Joan Crawford" is so large that it often overwhelms the individual movies she was in.

For the purposes of this blog, I picked a film in which the Joan Crawford persona had no effect. The 1926 silent comedy TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP was one of Joan's first major roles, even though she really is not much more than a attractive goal to be obtained by the film's star, Harry Langdon.

If you are not a major old movie buff, chances are you've never heard of Harry Langdon. At one point in the mid-1920s Langdon was considered the equal of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Langdon's bizarre child-like persona fell out of favor quickly, especially when he broke away from a certain young writer-director named Frank Capra.

Capra was one of the main writers on TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP, and he may have also helped out Harry Edwards on the direction. The story is about Harry entering a cross-country walking race in order to win enough money to save his elderly father's shoe store. The irony in this is that the race is sponsored by one of the big companies causing Harry's father to go broke. The Burton Shoes company has had a major success by using an ad campaign featuring Mr. Burton's beautiful daughter Betty (Joan Crawford). The ad campaign has caused Harry to fall hopelessly in love with Betty.

Harry Langdon pining over Joan Crawford's image in TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP

Believe it or not, Betty not only feels sorry for the elf-like, immature Harry--she even roots for him to win, and starts to fall for him! Of course, the "Joan Crawford" persona had yet to have been established. If this movie had been made a few years later, there's no way Joan would have treated Harry with respect, yet alone affection. She more than likely would have caused Harry to flee in sheer terror.

The idea that Harry Langdon's typical movie character could have had relations with any mature woman seems far-fetched, but one must take into account that just about every male silent movie comedian had pretty, "normal" leading ladies--and winning the hand of those ladies was an important plot point in their films. (I assume that the meaning behind this was that if goofy movie clowns could get the girl in the end, there was hope for all the ordinary guys in the audience.) In TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP Joan fulfills the role of dream girl very well. She's very fetching in her stylish (yet understated) wardrobe, and she exudes a softness and kindness that would rarely be seen over the rest of her long screen career. (I've always thought that Crawford was far more attractive in the late 1920s-early 30s than when she became a huge star.) No matter how silly a Harry Langdon--Joan Crawford love pairing may sound, it works in the film due to Crawford's performance.

As for the film itself, it's very good--not one of the best silent comedies--but still watchable today. An individual's enjoyment of TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP will be directly tied to how that individual responds to Harry Langdon. Frank Capra biographer Joseph McBride described Langdon's screen persona as looking like a depraved baby, and he's not far off the mark. The pasty-faced Harry is made to seem even smaller by wearing clothes that are too big for him, and his ability to get out of the many slapstick situations he finds himself in has more to do with pure luck than any effort on his part. Langdon on-screen is basically a bashful, naive, clumsy nine-year old--when one realizes that Langdon was in his forties when he made this film, the character seems even more weird. It's doubtful that Harry could manage to walk across the street, let alone walk across the United States. Yet in TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP Harry is able to save Joan from a cyclone, win the race, and win Joan's heart. If you have any sort of sentimentality in you, and you've been exposed to silent comedy, you'll probably like TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP--but if you're not used to silent slapstick, and you've never seen Harry Langdon before, you may find Harry's strange man-child act to be exasperating.

If you are a huge Joan Crawford fan, and you haven't seen TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP, I suggest you check it out if you get a chance. (I believe the film is available on YouTube, and it only runs about an hour.) You'll see a Joan Crawford very different from the "Joan Crawford" of Hollywood legend. You'll also be reminded of how naturally beautiful she was--even in a very generic role, she has a screen presence which makes the viewer notice everything she does (even though she doesn't get to do much). Joan Crawford was one of the greatest movie legends of all time. She had that indefinable "It"-even as a very young, and very little known, ingenue back in 1926.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

CARNIVAL OF SOULS On Criterion Blu-ray

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) is one of the great cult movies of all time, and now it's getting the super-deluxe treatment with a new Criterion Blu-ray.

Criterion released CARNIVAL OF SOULS on DVD several years ago, but this upgraded version is a worthy purchase. When I started collecting movies during the VHS boom in the late 1980s, public domain copies of this title could be found all over the place. I'm sure most classic horror film buffs have CARNIVAL OF SOULS represented somehow in their home video libraries. The video quality of this Criterion Blu-ray simply blows away any other version of the movie that I've seen--and it makes you appreciate even more the direction of Herk Harvey and the cinematography of Maurice Prather.

Saying that CARNIVAL OF SOULS was Herk Harvey's "only" feature film is something of a misnomer--Harvey had worked for years at a company called Centron, making industrial and educational films. While driving through Utah on his way home to Kansas, Harvey happened to see the deserted Saltair amusement resort. The sight of the desolate and dilapidated park inspired Harvey to ask his Centron co-worker, John Clifford, to write a horror tale around it. The result was one of the eeriest and creepiest movies ever made--an atmospheric combination of low-budget indie docudrama, silent film black & white expressionism, and mid-20th Century American Gothic.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS revolves around the fate of Mary Henry, an unusual young woman who is the sole survivor of an accident involving a car going off a bridge into a river. Mary leaves her hometown soon after the accident and travels to Utah, where she will start her new job as a church organist. Once Mary gets to Utah, she starts having visions of a pasty-faced ghostly figure (played by director Harvey). She's also strangely drawn to the deserted amusement park outside of town, while trying to fend off the lecherous interests of her neighbor across the hall.

Candace Hilligoss is perfect as the distant Mary. Hilligoss was the only professional actor used in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and while she's pretty, she also has an off-kilter quality about her that makes her a mystery to the audience. A more obvious, more glamorous "scream queen" type would have hurt the tone of the film. Mary doesn't seem to be part of the world going on around her (it's fairly obvious why), and Hilligoss portrays this very convincingly--even though she has the lead role, the viewer never gets a chance to warm up to her.

Some of the best scenes in CARNIVAL OF SOULS have Mary vacantly walking around the Saltair resort. This may be boring to some, but the past-its-prime amusement park is one of the best real-life movie locations ever, and proof that ingenuity and creativity are more important to a fantastic film than big-budgeted special effects. Director Harvey also filmed several scenes in the town of Lawrence, Kansas, and the plain, ordinary look of the town and its citizens gives the movie a sense of "unreal realism".

There's plenty of extras on this Criterion Blu-ray--most of them were featured on the Criterion CARNIVAL OF SOULS DVD. There is some new material, including appreciations of the film from Dana Gould and David Cairns. There's a documentary on the 1989 reunion of the cast and crew, a commentary with Herk Harvey and John Clifford, excerpts from movies made by Centron, and a lengthy selection of outtakes backed by the film's effectively spooky organ music score by Gene Moore.

The cut of CARNIVAL OF SOULS on this Blu-ray runs 78 minutes. Some on the internet are complaining that it is not the "uncut" version of the film that runs 82 minutes. The scenes not included in the Blu-ray cut are featured in a deleted scenes section and I really don't think having the 78 minute cut instead of the 82 minute cut is that big of a deal.

As usual with a Criterion release there is a booklet included, and this one has a fine essay on CARNIVAL OF SOULS by Kier-La Janisse....and it folds out to make a nice poster of the ghoul character that menaces Mary Henry.

I've always been a big fan of CARNIVAL OF SOULS ever since a first saw it years ago. It has no overt violence or gore, yet it remains far more memorable than the many "important" monster movies made at the same time. It's a tribute to low-budget creative film making, and it's the type of movie that should be watched when you are all alone late at night.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

To Upgrade Or Not Upgrade?

If you have any interest in movies, books, or music, chances are you've bought the same film/book/album many times in different formats. If you are old enough, you've probably bought an album on vinyl...then 8-track tape...then cassette tape...then CD...and finally vinyl again, with that format coming back into vogue. There are a number of movies that I taped off of broadcast TV when I was a teenager, and then purchased on VHS...then DVD...and now Blu-ray.

The reason I bring this up is that in the last few weeks there have been release announcements for several classic monster movies that will be making their debut on Region A Blu-ray. Universal has decided to finally put out their impressive Hammer Films set in a Blu-ray format, and Mill Creek Entertainment is going to release four different Columbia Hammer titles in HD. Universal is also going to release two Blu-ray "Legacy" Classic Monster collections--one for the Frankenstein movies and one for the Wolf Man pictures.

Most monster movie fans have all these titles already on DVD--so once again the question must be asked: Upgrade or not upgrade? The Universal Hammer titles, and the Columbia Hammer titles that Mill Creek are handling, look great on DVD. There has been some fanboy sniping about the aspect ratio of the Universal Hammer DVDs, but for the most part these titles are some of the best Hammer product you can get on home video.

One of the things that makes Hammer movies so noteworthy is their atmospheric widescreen color cinematography. If the Universal and Columbia titles look exemplary on DVD, one would assume they would look even better on Blu-ray. There's no guarantee of that, of course--just go to any Hammer-themed group on any social media site, start a discussion on Hammer Blu-rays, and wait and see what the result will be (chances are you'll have started the internet equivalent of World War III). The Universal and Mill Creek sets will have no extras, but the very thought of seeing so many Hammer titles in majestic-appearing Blu-ray has a lot of movie geeks very excited.

As for the Universal Classic Monster Legacy sets--it's basically the same idea as what Universal did with the Classic Monster Legacy DVD sets, with one important factor...there's going to be some overlap between the two. In other words, the Frankenstein and Wolf Man sets will have some of the same titles. And let's not forget the Universal Monster Collection Blu-ray set which came out not too long ago--that has some of the titles the Legacy Blu-ray collections will have.

What that means is if you are a major Universal monster fan, and you want all the Universal monster Blu-ray titles, you are going to be buying the same product over and over again. A major Universal monster fan more than likely already has the Universal Monster Collection Blu-ray set. Now let's say this fan wants to get THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON on Blu-ray. That means he/she is going to buy both Legacy Blu-ray sets, along with the first Universal monster Blu-ray set...and all three sets have some overlap.

I've written blogs before on the head-scratching release policies practiced by Universal. Why they would put two monster Blu-ray sets out, at the same time, and aimed at the same audience, when these sets have some of the same movies, makes no sense. The Legacy Blu-ray sets are going to have a lot of extras...but they're going to be the same extras that have been included over and over again on the many Universal monster DVD re-issues.

I still don't even have the first Universal monsters Blu-ray set. I've bought the classic Universal monster movie titles so many times, that I think I just reached a point where I didn't want to get them again. Yes, I'm well aware that many have said the first Universal monster Blu-ray set looks fantastic--but black & white full frame movies are titles I almost never upgrade to Blu-ray. I mean...color and widescreen in HD is one thing, but how much better can black & white full frame really look?

Usually if I do upgrade on a black & white full frame title it is because of Criterion. I have the Criterion Blu-ray versions of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, and a few others. Criterion always puts out amazing looking product, but they also provide a truckload of extras as well--and many times it is the extras that will cause me to re-buy a certain title. My latest Criterion Blu-ray acquisition is CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and I'll be writing a post on that soon (needless to say, it was worth getting). When it comes to silent films, I have no problem re-buying or upgrading if the print is way better than what is available. (For all those people who own those lousy cheap public domain DVD copies of various legendary silent features, all I can say is, you get what you pay for.)

When you own as many DVDs as I do, there's no way I can upgrade on everything. You have to pick and choose, and decide what titles are more important to you. The Hammer movies have a special place in my heart, so I'll definitely upgrade on those. The Universal Monster movies have a place in my heart as well--but I've learned over the years that Universal re-issues those titles over and over again, so it's best for me to wait a while and see what deals I can get on them.

One reason to start buying the Universal monster movies on Blu-ray is the fact that Universal's DVD sets cram as much stuff on one side of a disc as possible. I've read several stories from consumers on the internet detailing numerous playback issues with these special set discs--and I myself have had a few issues with them. I've got Universal DVD sets representing Gary Cooper, Cecil B. DeMille, Carole Lombard, Abbott & Costello, etc. If Universal starts putting all these out on Blu-ray, am I going to start buying them? Heck no. (If Universal puts out their James Stewart Western collection on Blu-ray, yeah, I'd re-buy that.) But I do worry that someday all these DVDs might not work at all.

Of course finances play a large part in what one upgrades as well. Why re-buy something when there are new titles coming out that need to be purchased? If I happen to find a Blu-ray of a title I only have on DVD real cheap, and it's a movie I particularly like, I'll probably get it. But I always ask myself, "Do I really need to have this on Blu-ray?" The movie's sound plays a part as well--new 5.1 remixes are always welcome, especially on war or action films.

I sometimes feel that the constant upgrades in home video technology--video tape, DVD, Blu-ray, and now 4K--are just a way to get consumers to buy everything over and over again. I know some people who swear that they can't tell the difference between DVD and Blu-ray, or HD TV and regular broadcast TV--and there are times I wish I was like those poor souls, that way I wouldn't spend so much of my hard-earned money on the same product over and over again. And think about this: I do not own a region free Blu-ray player--good grief, if I did, I'd really be a charity case. What movies have you bought over and over again? And what makes you upgrade on a certain title?

G Fest 2016

Yesterday I attended G Fest XXIII, held at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O'Hare hotel. G Fest is a celebration of Godzilla and all things kaiju (that translates to "giant monster", in case you don't know). The last time I went to G Fest was 2012--that was where I met the legendary Svengoolie for the first time--and this year the attendance was far large that I was told that it was a G Fest record.

The main reason I went to G Fest was to meet Linda Miller, who played the female lead in the 1967 Toho film KING KONG ESCAPES. That movie has become more and more popular over the years--I have to think that the fact Svengoolie has shown it on his weekly MeTV program a few times in recent years has something to do with it. For a long time KING KONG ESCAPES was compared unfairly to the seminal 1933 KING KONG, but I believe that now many see the Toho film as enjoyable imaginative fun. Even though her voice was dubbed for the role, Linda still made an impression as the cute and spunky Lt. Susan Watson. Linda had a very brief acting career, and many kaiju fans wondered what had happened to her. After agreeing to a recent interview for G-FAN magazine, Linda has started to appear at movie conventions (this was her first time at a G Fest). At her G Fest Q & A session, Linda was so overcome by the welcoming attitude of the fans that she started to cry. I was particularly touched by this, since it reinforced the fact that those folks we see in the movies with love are human beings. That should be obvious, but when we see certain films over and over again we kind of take for granted the performers that are involved in them--they have feelings and emotions just like us.

Akira Takarada, your humble author, and Linda Miller

I also got to met the legendary Akira Takarada again (I first met him at the earlier G Fest I attended). Mr. Takarada played the young male lead in the very first GODZILLA, and he went on to appear in several more kaiju films for Toho. He's to the giant monster genre as, say, Clint Eastwood is to Westerns. As the first time I met him, he was charming and friendly to everyone--and what's even more amazing is that he seems not to age at all!

I also got to meet author and ultimate kaiju expert August Ragone, who inscribed my copy of his fantastic book on Japanese FX master Eiji Tsuburaya. I reviewed the book on this blog in 2014, and I mentioned that to him, and he remembered it!

One thing I didn't do was buy any memorabilia--I have to say I was proud of my self-control. There were plenty of things I wanted to buy, but when you are a working-class fellow like myself, you have to have some priorities--besides, there's a couple other movie conventions I plan on going to next month.

G Fest is very reminiscent of the Monster Bash conventions I usually attend. It has a very low-key and fan friendly feel (since it is not officially affiliated with Toho in any way, it can't be called the "Godzilla convention"). There's definitely more of a sense of community here that the typical big-time big-city movie geek conventions going on today. J. D Lees and everyone who helps make G Fest happen do an excellent job, and I recommend going to it if you have a chance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Ray Harryhausen Blogathon: EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS

In the mid-1950s, master special-effects animator Ray Harryhausen was involved in a number of low-budget black & white movies which featured a particular creature--THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH. 1956's EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS does not fit this pattern--instead of an individual monster such as a dinosaur, giant octopus, or space being, the movie has an entire alien race as the enemy. Ray Harryhausen was interested in the challenge of making generic flying saucers into a noteworthy menace, and he succeeded.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS is not as beloved by Harryhausen fans as the later mythological fantasies the animator would work on. Produced by Harryhausen's usual partner Charles Schneer, and with a story by Curt Siodmak, the movie has all the hallmarks of a typical fifties sci-fi flick--an opening prologue with stern narration, a scientist (played by an actor in his forties) who almost always wears a collared shirt and who smokes a pipe, many characters who are military men, and large sections of stock footage. The movie is a "B" picture, nothing more, nothing less. It's the "Harryhausen touch" that makes EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS different.

The actual flying saucers presented here almost have attitudes of their own, due to the genius of Harryhausen. The way they fly, scoot about, even the way they fall out of the sky when attacked--it's as if the saucers are alive, instead of something alive inside of them. The alien race which is attacking the Earth is never named, and we don't even know what planet they are from--in fact we only see one of the actual aliens very briefly--so the saucers are the true representation of the threat against humanity in this film.

The ultimate highlight of EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS is the final battle, which takes place in Washington, D.C.. Scientist Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) has developed a sonic ray which can bring down the saucers from the sky. The falling space vehicles wind up taking out the Washington Monument and the Capital Dome (the White House is spared--maybe the filmmakers thought that might have been a bit too much). Such destruction of national monuments is a given in today's big-budget spectaculars, but in 1956 it was something of a novelty, and it made a huge impression on baby-boomer audiences of the day. All the destruction was animated by Harryhausen--frame-by-frame, brick-by-falling brick--and it has a sense and texture to it that CGI just can't match.

Harryhausen also designed the spacesuits the aliens wear, and several other details in the film. The man wasn't a director or writer, but the films on which he worked on bear his stamp as much as any other credited technician (the actual director of EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS was Fred Sears, who does an okay if competent job).

Leading lady Joan Taylor with the "pilots" of the flying saucers (spacesuits designed by Ray Harryhausen)

Unlike the amazing flights of fantasy seen in Harryhausen's later work, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS has a Cold War, militaristic tone. In the beginning of the film the aliens try to contact Dr. Marvin and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor), but the message is misunderstood. The result is that when the aliens, in their saucers, arrive at the rocket base Dr. Marvin works at, they are attacked--and they destroy the base in return. The rest of the story takes for granted that the aliens are the "bad guys", and it's pretty well cut and dried that Earth has to fight back no matter what. There's no attempt to understand the aliens, or try to make amends with them. The movie has a "us vs. them" mentality, which may be politically incorrect now, but served the purpose of the times in which it was made.

The flying saucers may be the big stars here, but the human performers deserve some credit as well. Hugh Marlowe may come off as too much of a generic white guy for some viewers now, but he makes Dr. Marlowe into a sincere, believable character. Joan Taylor as Mrs. Marlowe doesn't get much to do, but she's charismatic and attractive (and she also spends a lot of time running around Washington D.C. in high heels). Morris Ankrum plays Mrs. Marlowe's father, General Hanley. Any true film buff knows Ankrum appeared as a military man in numerous sci-fi flicks--so many that I'm surprised that a real U.S. Army base hasn't been named after him yet.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS isn't on the same level as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, but it is a fast-paced, entertaining science-fiction tale--and it has the creative genius of Ray Harryhausen as a bonus. During his working life Harryhausen attempted to do a number of science-fiction projects--such as a version of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and a intriguing project named SINBAD GOES TO MARS. One can only wonder what Harryhausen would have done with a big-budgeted, full-out science-fiction epic. Perhaps we should just be thankful for all the brilliant stories Ray Harryhausen did provide us with. I've loved all of his movies for almost my entire life, and I've always considered him a creative icon. The world is a better place because of what he brought to it.

This is my contribution to the Ray Harryhausen Blogathon, hosted by Wolffian Classics Movies Digest.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Whatever Happened To Movie Title Sequences?

My good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy, recently sent me a preview copy of his latest film, THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The movie gets your attention right from the beginning with a very nice title sequence. We see a book resting on a table--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Return of Sherlock Holmes--and the book is opened to reveal the credits inscribed on the "pages". It's a evocative reminder of classic cinema.

Watching this sequence got me thinking about how today's movie title sequences are sadly lacking--in fact, most movies nowadays don't even have title sequences. The audience is lucky if it even gets a title, period. More and more it seems that films are starting out "cold"--without any titles or credits whatsoever. I know I should be used to this way of starting a feature by now, but when I see a picture with no title credits it seems unfinished to me in some way.

The lack of movie title sequences may be the result of the sound bite society that we live in. Why should the audience have to sit through a bunch of title credits when they can be put right into the action? Some would say today's audiences have no time for title credits--but I find that hard to believe considering the two-plus hour length of most popular films. Even most TV shows today--which are far shorter than the average feature film--do not have title sequences, rendering the classic TV show theme song all but extinct.

For several years, typical classic mainstream Hollywood movies had rather basic titles--name of film, leading actors, director of photography, composer, writer, producer, director. But there was still room for creative experimentation, such as the fist punching through a window in MAD LOVE (1935), or the titles designed to look like Christmas cards in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. As the studio system began to go into decline in the 1950s, movie title sequences started to change as well, becoming more and more stylistic. The James Bond films, with their legendary pre-title sequences, theme songs, and expressionistic credits, made a major impact on title sequences for movies in every genre.

Title sequences can be a very important way to set the mood and the tone of a film. I'll give you an example: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. This movie has all the traditional title credits, but they don't get in the way of the sequence being shown to us. Due to John Williams' moody score and Douglas Slocombe's photography, a sense of heightened anticipation is established right from the start. Steven Spielberg doesn't even tell us what is going on--heck, he doesn't even show Indiana Jones' face--but the viewer is drawn into the tale and wants to know what is going on and why. We as viewers get all the relevant credits and a suspenseful trek through the jungle--proving that you don't have to skip the credits to get the audience interested in a story.

I know someone out there is going to say, "Hey, what about your favorite movie of all time, STAR WARS?? That didn't have a title sequence!!" Well, technically it did--we do see the title, after all. And George Lucas specifically designed the title sequence to resemble the titles of 1930s-1940s movie serials. That's far different than today's movies that skip the titles than for seemingly no other reason than the filmmakers just don't want to deal with them.

Not only do title sequences establish an emotional tone for a film--they also can establish an artistic tone for a film as well. Just look at the collaborations between Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock--or better yet, Saul Bass with anybody. Many times just the font used for title credits can influence the overall feel of a film. Can you imagine, say, GONE WITH THE WIND, or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY without their title sequences?

The lack of title sequences in movies today has resulted in all the credits being shoved to the back of the film. This results in end credits lasting sometimes up to ten minutes, since because of union rules, everyone who has anything to do with the film gets a credit. Many movies now use numerous CGI effects, and the creation of those effects involves hundreds of most big-budget blockbusters literally have thousands of people working on them. I have nothing against anyone getting proper credit for their work, but if you have ever sat around waiting for a post-credits scene, you know how long some end credits go on and on. The problem with having all the credits at the end is that those credits are never as artistic as title credits, and many viewers get up and leave when the end credits start--meaning that most people never see them anyways.

I know I sound old-fashioned, but I miss the traditional credits sequences to movies. There's something about seeing an anticipated movie title up on the screen--or the name of a favorite performer or director. To me, giving someone a large credit at the beginning of the film is a sign of respect for that person's talent. (And before you bring it up, yes, I'm well aware that some filmmakers use credits as a way to assuage their massive egos.) What are some of your favorite movie title sequences? Are there some 21st Century title sequences that deserve to be mentioned?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Kino Studio Classics has come out with a Blu-ray of one of the most unusual of 1950s sci-fi flicks: THE MAGNETIC MONSTER.

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is unusual mainly for the fact that the "monster" is never really seen. A scientist, through his experiments with radiation, has developed a new element that constantly needs to feed on energy. Two "agents" (also known as "A" Men) from the Office of Scientific Investigation (Richard Carlson and King Donovan) find out about the danger from extreme magnetic activity in a hardware store. The OSI soon learns that the element will continue to feed on energy, and continue to grow until the entire planet is affected! The OSI decides that only a massive amount of electricity might stop the "monster", and the element is flown to an experimental underground generator located in Nova Scotia.

THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was produced and co-written by Ivan Tors, who used the OSI organization again in his movies RIDERS TO THE STARS and GOG. This movie almost qualifies as a sci-fi version of DRAGNET, with two "officers" tracking down a dangerous "culprit". (The use of voice-over narration and the rather basic filming style only heighten the comparison.) The only major special effects are at the climax when the generator (called a "Deltatron") is used--and these scenes are lifted from the 1934 German film GOLD! Of course, today it's easy to spot the stock footage--but one must remember that when this movie was made in 1953, nobody in the audience would have been aware of this, and they certainly wouldn't have noticed it.

The use of the stock footage, and the fact that the "monster" is never really properly shown, allows this film to have a very, very low budget (being that it is in black & white and not in widescreen, it doesn't look that much different than an average TV program from the same period). At one point the characters talk about how the element has caused an implosion at a university laboratory--but we are never shown this. The lack of bells & whistles may drive typical 2016 viewers crazy, but if you are a fan of this genre, and willing to accept the situation, you will find that THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is a intriguing little picture with a very different concept from the usual fantastic films released during this period.

What makes this film work in particular is its leading man, Richard Carlson. Carlson had a far more varied acting career than people like me give him credit for, but he's now mainly remembered for his science-fiction movie work in such titles as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Carlson had the unique ability to play a intelligent, determined scientific investigator yet at the same time still come off as a "regular guy". Carlson's character in THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is focused on his job, but he's also worried about his pregnant wife, and trying to decide whether he and she should move out of their apartment and take on a mortgage for a house. If an actor who didn't seem as reliable as Carlson was playing the leading role, it's doubtful anyone watching it would readily buy into its premise.

Also involved in THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was genre stalwart Curt Siodmak, who is listed as co-writer and director. How much involvement Siodmak had is in dispute (many sources list the movie's editor, Herbert L. Strock, as co-director--Strock would go on to direct a number of fantastic films of his own). The real guiding hand behind the production appears to be Ivan Tors, who would later create a TV show called SCIENCE FICTION THEATER which had a number of similar elements (no pun intended) to THE MAGNETIC MONSTER.

As stated before, this film is in black & white, and in standard aspect ratio. This Kino Blu-ray of THE MAGNETIC MONSTER is probably about as good as a low-budget feature like this is going to look. A meandering and unfocused commentary is contributed by Derek Botello, and there are a few trailers for some of Kino's other science-fiction Blu-ray releases.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Terminal Nostalgia

A few weeks ago, Will McKinley tweeted a link to a Stephen Spielberg interview in which the director mentioned that he had "terminal nostalgia". Will went on to say that many of his classic movie buff friends suffer from the same malady. I also must admit to having terminal nostalgia--but the question is, for what?

Yes, I love old movies--my brother once told me that I only watch things which feature a cast list of performers who have passed on--but does that necessarily mean I have nostalgia for the times a particular film or TV show was made in?

My home video collection has movies from the 1920s, and many people now look at anything made in the 1980s as "old". So, to say that a person who is a movie buff is living in the past is somewhat simplistic. If you enjoy movies made over the span of a 100-year period, what past are you supposed to be living in?

Just because I watch numerous films from decades ago doesn't mean I would rather live in those decades. If a story intrigues me, I don't care what time period it is set in--or from what time period it is made. It cracks me up when friends of mine accuse me of not having an open mind because I dislike sequels and remakes, especially when those friends appear to have an aversion to watching the original product on which those reboots are based.

I harbor no illusions that things were better "back in the good old days". Most of the same problems that affect the world today were going on years and years ago, just in a different context. My childhood wasn't all that great--I certainly didn't fit in at school, my family didn't have a lot of money, and my parents didn't get along too well. If I had the chance to go back to the 1970s or the 1980s, would I choose to do so? Probably not. (Unless...I was allowed to go to Old Comiskey Park and see White Sox games.) Would I want to go back to the 1930s or 1940s? I doubt life really was all that much better than it is now.

So what exactly am I terminally nostalgic for? I think it is not so much for a certain type of lifestyle as it is a certain form of entertainment. As we grow up, certain things--books, movies, muisc--catch our attention, inspire us, and make us feel better about ourselves. I hated being a teenager, but I loved experiencing many of the great classic films for the very first time. Watching Svengoolie every weekend on Chicago's Channel 32 back in the 1980s was very important to me. That meant more to me than anything that happened in high school. Were old movies an escape from reality? Certainly--but I could have spent all that time drinking or taking drugs. We all have ways in which we cope with our everyday problems, and one of mine is being a film buff.

One of the great things about being a film buff is that you cannot see every movie ever made--and you can't limit yourself to one particular type of movie. Even if you try to stick to, say, horror and science-fiction films, there are going to be actors and directors that appeal to you, and you will want to see all of their work--even the work they did in other genres. If you have any type of imagination whatsoever, there's no way you can watch just one type of movie. And if there are those of you who watch just one type of're missing out on so many great moments, I can't help but feel sorry for you.

So maybe "terminal nostalgia" is just another way of saying that I'm more willing to watch movies that the mainstream population (whatever that may be) would pass by. There are types of movies, and types of actors, that make me feel good, or at least make me feel comfortable in watching them. Does it matter if the movies were made years ago, or the actors are all dead?

I have been accused of not liking anything that is new. That's not true--but I do know people who fit that description, and they're just as misguided as those who are not interested in anything that didn't happen five minutes ago. Nostalgia can be a good thing, but it can also be a trap. Living in the past might make you feel better, but it can also blind you to what is going on around you right now.

Another thing about nostalgia is that it is has a lot to do with timing. Anybody who knows me knows how I feel about the original STAR WARS. One of the big reasons why I love that movie so much is that it came out when I was eight years old--it was the first major personal movie event of my life. If I had seen STAR WARS ten, or fifteen years later--would I have had the same feelings for it? Doubtful. Whatever we feel emotionally nostalgic for has much to do with when we grew up. That has to be the explanation for why I have such a fondness for ugly looking 1970s-80s Major League baseball jerseys.

I'm starting to realize that this is becoming something of a rambling and pointless discourse, so I'd better wrap it up by saying this. If old movie buffs suffer from terminal nostalgia, it may be because they are more prone to have open minds, and they are more likely to appreciate cultural entertainment from all eras. "Living in the past" has very little to do with it.