Sunday, April 30, 2017
One of the greatest romantic comedies of all time gets the Criterion treatment. WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942) is the very first collaboration between screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, and many believe it is the best.
When one watches WOMAN OF THE YEAR, it's hard to believe that Tracy & Hepburn had never even met one another before they appeared in this film. Their chemistry together is perfect, and they work so naturally together you'd think they had been doing it for years. They remained an on and off screen couple until Tracy's death in 1967.
It doesn't take an intellectual with a film studies degree to articulate why Tracy & Hepburn were one of the best movie couples. The Midwestern-born, plain-spoken Tracy and the East Coast high-brow Hepburn were the ultimate example of opposites attract. Spencer Tracy is one of my favorite actors, but I have to admit that I've never been a huge Katherine Hepburn fan. I've always respected her acting talent, which was considerable....but she was too theatrical for me, too contrived, too....Hepburnish?? But Tracy made Hepburn appealing, and Hepburn made Tracy seem romantic. Tracy was also a strong enough personality to put Hepburn in her place, and Hepburn was a strong enough personality to give it right back to him.
The storyline for WOMAN OF THE YEAR seems fairly generic today--regular guy sportswriter and internationally renowned political columnist fall in love, and deal with the realities of being together. Literally hundreds of other movies and sitcoms have used the same premise since. It's what Tracy & Hepburn--and director George Stevens--do with the material that separates it from the many imitations that would follow. The comic timing in this film is amazing. Tracy's facial reactions are on a level with those of Oliver Hardy.
If there is a detriment to WOMAN OF THE YEAR, it may be the climax, which has Hepburn disastrously trying to prove she can be a "proper" wife to Tracy. I'm sure many viewers today with a certain political agenda might grit their teeth while watching the ending. Many of the extras on the Blu-ray point out that this climax was filmed to replace another sequence because a number of female members in the test audiences felt Hepburn needed to be knocked off her high horse. I find the ending funny, but I think it kind of misses the point--Hepburn's character's problems at being a wife have little to do with whether she can cook.
What makes Criterion's Blu-ray of WOMAN OF THE YEAR a must-buy are the numerous extras included. The disc features two full-length documentaries: GEORGE STEVENS: A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY, and THE SPENCER TRACY LEGACY: A TRIBUTE BY KATHERINE HEPBURN. I feel A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY is worth the price of the Blu-ray alone--it is one of the best examinations of a classic American movie director's career I have seen. THE SPENCER TRACY LEGACY is important because it was hosted and narrated by Hepburn, and it showcases many film clips from throughout Tracy's film career.
The disc also has new interviews with George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, George Stevens Jr., and writer Claudia Roth Pierpont, who discusses Katherine Hepburn. There's also a 1967 audio interview with George Stevens, and the liner notes feature an essay by Stephanie Zacharek.
Friday, April 28, 2017
Among the latest of Arrow Video's fantastic releases is the 1967 Euro Western DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN, starring Terence Hill as the title character.
The original DJANGO, directed by Sergio Corbucci, was such a success in Europe that dozens of films followed which used (or more accurately, ripped off) the Django name. DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN is somewhat of an "official" Django movie--Franco Nero, who first played the character, was going to reprise the role, but he left to appear in the film adaptation of CAMELOT. Nero was replaced by Italian actor Mario Girotti, who used the name Terence Hill. Hill would later become far better known as Trinity in a number of comedic Spaghetti Westerns. (I honestly didn't know anything about DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN before it was announced Arrow was putting it out on Blu-ray--so I was amazed to learn that Terence Hill had played two iconic characters of the Euro West.)
Terence Hill bore a resemblance to Franco Nero, and he wears basically the same type of costume Nero wore in the first DJANGO. Hill's DJANGO isn't as morose as Nero's, but the original DJANGO is one of the bleakest movies ever made. DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN has the character being set up and robbed by a ruthless politician's gang while accompanying a gold shipment. Django's wife is killed in the melee, and he's left for dead. (It's never made clear if the events of this film happen before or after the first DJANGO--it could essentially just be an early version of a reboot.)
Five years later Django is working as a hangman in the same territory. The men he is hired to execute have been set up by the same gang that attacked Django. Django fakes the executions, and uses the men he has saved from the gallows to take part in his revenge against those who have wronged him. The men in Django's new gang, however, are just as brutal and vicious as the people who set them up, and the usual Spaghetti Western double-dealings and back-stabbings ensue, with another gold shipment involved in the mix. Django does get to use his famous machine gun in the climax, which is fittingly enough set in a graveyard.
DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN isn't as violent as the original DJANGO (few films are), but it still has plenty of brutality. Django gets beaten and tortured (most Euro Western "heroes" do), and his gang spends plenty of time and energy bringing vengeance to others. Director Ferdinando Baldi does an okay job, but he's no Sergio Leone (or Corbucci, for that matter). DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN is not so much a great Spaghetti Western as it is a representative one. The one element it has that sticks out the most for me is Django's use of a gang--most leading characters in this genre are out-and-out loners. The fact that the gang causes him more trouble than they're worth shows that you can't trust anyone in a Euro Western (Django, of all people, should know this rule). Hill will forever be known for his lighthearted antics as Trinity, but he makes a very good "regular" action movie star. Horst Frank plays the politician behind everything, and he's nowhere near as outlandish as most Spaghetti Western villains. The movie does have a fine score by Gianfranco Reverberi.
Arrow Video has released DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN on Blu-ray in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image is a bit soft, and like a lot of other Spaghetti Westerns made during this period, the picture has a yellowish tint to it. It's doubtful, though, that this movie could look any better than Arrow's presentation. English and Italian soundtracks are provided in Mono, along with English subtitles. The main extra on the disc is a short interview with Euro Western expert Kevin Grant, who talks about the film and explains the history of the Django character. A very ragged-looking trailer is included, in which the film is named VIVA DJANGO. A 15-page booklet is included, which has an essay about the film's production history by film historian Howard Hughes, and stills from the movie. Arrow's release also has a DVD version of the movie. As usual with Arrow product, the title sleeve has reversible artwork.
DJANGO, PREPARE A COFFIN is not a great Western, or even a great Spaghetti Western, but it is entertaining and interesting for those who favor the genre. Seeing Terence Hill play Django before he played Trinity is at least worth a look for cult movie fans. Once again I have to commend Arrow Video for doing excellent work on a title that would usually be relegated to public domain purgatory.
Monday, April 24, 2017
Soon after his game-changing portrayal of Dracula in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, Christopher Lee played another vampire role--in an Italian comedy. Filmed in 1959 under the original title of TEMPI DURI PER I VAMPIRI, the movie was known in America as UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE.
For Christopher Lee fans, UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE is something of a revelation. Lee definitely isn't playing Dracula--the bloodsucker in this film has the florid name of Baron Roderigo de Braumfurten. But Lee's appearance in this film is almost exactly what he would look like in the many Dracula films he made for Hammer in the 1960s-1970s. Baron Roderigo has a red-lined cape, which Lee would have in the later Dracula films. Roderigo's hairstyle in also very much in line with what Lee's Dracula would sport. Roderigo is a bit paler and thinner than the Hammer version of Dracula, but for me he looks almost exactly like Lee did in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).
Roderigo also resembles Lee's Dracula in other ways. Many of Lee's facial reactions, his physical mannerisms, and his body language in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE would show up again in the Hammer Draculas. The way Roderigo shoves someone out of his way, the way he closes a door in haste, the way he reacts to a cross--all these actions will be familiar to anyone who has viewed Lee's "official" Dracula movies. Seeing Lee going through all these motions in this context is rather strange--it's like discovering a lost Hammer film.
UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE also anticipates the later Hammer Draculas in the way in which Lee is used. Baron Roderigo doesn't have a lot of screen time, and when he is not onscreen, his presence is sorely missed. Lee is the sole reason to watch UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE. There are some beautiful women present, including Susanne Loret, the hottie from ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, but the comedy aspect of the story is very tepid.
The movie begins with an atmospheric sequence in which a horse-driven hearse (much like the ones used in Hammer movies) rides through a forest resembling Black Park. But this isn't the 19th Century--the story quickly shifts to present-day Italy, where the forlorn Baron Oswaldo (Renato Rascel) has just sold his castle to a group that plans to turn it into a resort hotel. Oswaldo has to use the money from the sale to pay off back taxes, leaving him broke--so he becomes a lowly bellhop. Oswaldo soon receives a letter from a mysterious uncle, informing him of an upcoming visit. It's Baron Roderigo, who, unaware of the sale of the castle, plans to use it for his new home. Oswaldo quickly learns that his Uncle is a vampire, and attempts to ward him off, but he's bitten--and the milquetoast nephew starts biting every female in the castle, sending them into swoons of ecstasy. All is resolved in the climax--even Baron Roderigo gets a happy ending.
The biggest problem with UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE is that it just isn't all that funny (at least from my outlook). The version of this film I watched was dubbed in English, so maybe the comedy might have come across better in a subtitled cut, but I doubt it. Renato Rascel is very low-key as Oswaldo--a Lou Costello type would have worked better in the role. Rascel is so short, even the women in the film tower over him, so his vampiric state comes off as a kid dressing up for Halloween. (It doesn't help that the vampire Oswaldo kind of looks like Joe Pesci.) The comedy in UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE is on the level of a 1960s TV sitcom, more silly than funny. During Rascel's antics, I kept waiting for Christopher Lee to show up again.
Christopher Lee and Renato Rascel
For what it's worth, Lee does play Roderigo straight, much in the way Bela Lugosi and Co. acted in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Due to his towering screen presence, Lee commands every scene he's in (not that he has much competition with the rest of the cast). Director Stefano Vanzina does give Lee some atmospheric moments. Oswaldo's castle was an actual location, and seeing Lee skulk about it in the night, instead of the usual Hammer sets, is a true highlight. Unfortunately, as in many of his European film appearances, Lee is dubbed in the English version by someone who uses a generic "spooky" voice backed by an echo chamber.
It would be nice to see an uncut restored version of UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE with subtitles. I don't think it would make the movie significantly better....but it would help. If you are a major Christopher Lee fan, and have not seen UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE, you really need to. It qualifies almost as a "lost" Lee vampiric performance. It has many similarities with some of Lee's Hammer Draculas--too many scenes not relevant to the story, beautiful women to look at (if you're so inclined), and not enough Lee. It's not a great piece of work, but Lee made many films that were far worse.
Friday, April 21, 2017
I felt I just had to write a blog post on the passing of French actress Yvonne Monlaur. She played the role of Marianne Danielle in the Hammer Film Gothic masterpiece THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, one of my favorite movies of all time. She also appeared in two other famous classic horrors--CIRCUS OF HORRORS and another Hammer production, THE TERROR OF THE TONGS.
During the height of her career Monlaur was constantly compared to screen sex goddess Brigitte Bardot. In her three horror films, however, Monlaur projected a naive innocence--she was more a maiden in need of rescue. Her character in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is a sweet, trusting individual, a young girl so overwhelmed by the dark situations she experiences that she becomes easy prey for the handsome vampire Baron Meinster. The color cinematography of Jack Asher and the typically gorgeous Hammer costumes (nightgowns included) made Monlaur look spectacular. Director Terence Fisher made much use of Monlaur's beautifully expressive eyes (if there was any actress who could do a perfect wide-eyed horrified stare, it was Yvonne). Untold numbers of monster movie fans fell for Yvonne while watching BRIDES, and all of them wanted to see her saved by Peter Cushing's intrepid Dr. Van Helsing. Monlaur's damsel in distress characterization may be seen as politically incorrect in the age of social media demand of "strong" female roles, but it was perfect for the world of Gothic horror cinema.
There's also a special reason why Monlaur's role in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is important. There's a Hammer fan theory that Marianne and Van Helsing get together as an actual couple after the events of BRIDES. In later Hammer Dracula films, we meet Van Helsing's modern direct descendant, so he had to have hooked up with someone. There's also the fact that at the end of the film, Van Helsing and Marianne are locked in an embrace. Whenever I watch BRIDES I always feel that there is a subtle attraction between Van Helsing and Marianne, so it makes sense that Monlaur's character had a far bigger role in the Hammer universe.
I, and my good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy, had the great honor of meeting Yvonne Monlaur at the October 2014 Monster Bash Conference in Mars, Pennsylvania. My first impression of her was how small in stature she was....but she was also a kindly person, and she was very nice to Joshua and I. She even spoke French to us (we both got a kick out of that). When she spoke to us about Peter Cushing, she had so much admiration for him, she looked as if she was going to cry. Later on at the Bash, she participated in a Q & A forum, and she told a number of stories about her life and career. She seemed to enjoy herself at this event.
Meeting Yvonne Monlaur at the October 2014 Monster Bash
It was a huge deal for me to meet this woman--as I've stated before, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of my favorite movies of all time. It's my favorite Hammer film, my favorite Peter Cushing performance....and Yvonne Monlaur was the leading lady in it. She was the true definition of a classic Scream Queen, and she will always live on in the hearts of Monster Movie Geeks everywhere.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
YouTube Monster Theater continues with my recent viewing of SEDDOK--"L'EREDE DI SATANA"...a movie better known under its U.S. title, ATOM AGE VAMPIRE.
An Italian production from 1960, SEDDOK is one of those "Obsessed Doctor Who Will Do Anything To Restore The Beauty Of A Woman" stories, in the same vein as EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, and CORRUPTION. Like those other films, SEDDOK has a seamy undercurrent. It starts out with a striptease at a nightclub performed by the gorgeous Jeannette (played by Susanne Loret). Jeannette's ship officer boyfriend Pierre (Sergio Fantoni) disapproves of her dancing, and the two argue. Jeannette angrily drives home, and wrecks her car, causing hideous burns on her face. Jeannette believes she has nothing left to live for, but a mysterious woman named Monique (Franca Parisi) visits her in the hospital. Monique convinces Jeannette to visit the secluded home of a Professor Levin (Alberto Lupo) and undergo radical treatment. The Professor is able to restore Jeannette's face, but the effects are only temporary. The Professor, who has become infatuated over Jeannette, turns himself into a horrid monster in order to kill other women that will provide the source needed for a total cure.
This movie, under the title ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, has become something of a camp cult classic. It has all the ingredients to be an effective classic chiller, but it falls short of the mark. Susanne Loret is certainly attractive, but there's a coldness to her beauty, and her character comes off as whiny and self-absorbed. She does look great in a nightgown, though. (You just knew she was going to be wearing one in this type of movie.) Professor Levin seems to fall for Jeannette the very first time he sees her, and it's hard to understand why he would kill for her, especially since the young woman does not reciprocate his feelings. Besides, Levin's assistant Monique (who is very easy on the eyes herself) pines for the Professor. Monique winds up being the first victim to Levin's scheme to revive Jeannette's beauty, a plot element that I think was a mistake. Instead of killing off Monique so early in the tale, she should have been allowed to live (at least till the climax). This would have increased the dynamic between Levin, Monique, and Jeannette, and given more emotional weight to the story. Monique's absence leaves Levin to his own devices....all he has to judge him is a mute sad-eyed servant, who at least has a major role in the end. (Once again, I have to ask....why do so many supposedly brilliant scientists wind up with such lousy help??)
The Professor is so undone by his killing of Monique that he decides to turn himself into a monster--he feels that this will enable him to take other lives. This brings a "Jekyll & Hyde" element to the story, and since Levin goes out at night and targets ladies of the evening, there's a "Jack the Ripper" aspect as well. The Professor's monstrous state is more goofy than unsettling, but at one point during his first transformation a bit of stop-motion animation is used--an inventive idea. Alfredo Lupo is okay is Levin, but the part needs a Lugosi, or a Carradine, or an Atwill to make it flourish. (It would be very easy to believe that Lionel Atwill would go on a murder spree so he can operate on a stripper.)
The print of SEDDOK that I viewed on YouTube ran about 103 minutes (in Jonathan Rigby's book EURO GOTHIC, the movie's full running time is listed as 107 minutes). The version of this film known as ATOM AGE VAMPIRE runs 80-some minutes. I have to say that the cut-down version might be better. 100+ minutes is very long for this type of movie. Much of the second half of SEDDOK is bogged down by police procedure--old monster movie fans know that whenever an inspector shows up to investigate whatever strange killings are going on, it's time to get some snacks or head to the bathroom. Director Anton Guilio Majano does an adequate job, but the real visual highlights come from the black & white photography of Aldo Giordani. SEDDOK needs a Mario Bava or--dare I say it?--Jess Franco at the helm. Those two directors (among others) would have given the production an extra oomph. By whatever name you call it, SEDDOK/ATOM AGE VAMPIRE reminds me of several other much better horror/science fiction films.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Mill Creek Entertainment has released a Blu-ray triple feature consisting of three horror films from the late 60s-early 70s. Two of the films, TORTURE GARDEN and THE CREEPING FLESH, make sense being bundled together, since they are both British productions and they each star Peter Cushing. The third film, THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, is the odd one out, being a low budget American story about Devil worship.
The three films are all on one disc. Mill Creek names this collection "Psycho Circus", apparently inspired by the fact that TORTURE GARDEN is set in a carnival. Even with that weak link the name doesn't make much sense for the set overall. (PSYCHO CIRCUS, by the way, was the American title of the 1966 Christopher Lee film CIRCUS OF FEAR.) Thankfully, the disc cover is reversible, and the other side showcases promotional art for each movie (see picture above).
TORTURE GARDEN (1967) is one of Amicus Productions' many anthology films. This one is made up of four stories from famed thriller writer Robert Bloch, who penned the screenplay. The first three tales are not all that impressive. They deal with a diabolical cat, a jealous piano (yes, you read that right), and the obvious "secret" on why Hollywood legends never seem to age. The final story, "The Man Who Collected Poe" is by far the best. It has Jack Palance and Peter Cushing as Poe fanatics--with Palance finding out that Cushing has the ultimate Poe collectible. (Cushing has the smaller role, but you do get to see him act drunk.) Director Freddie Francis does what he can visually to jazz up the stories. The framing story has Burgess Meredith as a sideshow exhibitor named Dr. Diabolo, who shows folks their futures by having them examine a statue of Atropos holding the "shears of fate". Other than the last tale, TORTURE GARDEN is a bit underwhelming--except Palance, Cushing, and Meredith, it doesn't have the lineup of guest stars one usually sees in a Amicus anthology.
THE CREEPING FLESH (1972), also directed by Freddie Francis, is the best film in this collection. For whatever reason, it doesn't seem to get the respect it deserves, despite the fact that it is one of the more impressive Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee team-ups. The duo play half-brothers who are rival scientists in 1890s England. Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) has brought back a strange skeleton from New Guinea, and discovers that the find grows flesh when brought into contact with water. Emmanuel's studies of New Guinea native legends convinces him that the skeleton is the remains of a destructive being, and he tries to create a serum from the creeping flesh that will counteract evil. Unfortunately the serum brings about evil instead of suppressing it, and Emmanuel does not find this out until after he has injected his young daughter (Lorna Heilbron) with it. Emmanuel's wife had died in his half-brother James' (Lee) asylum, and the man fears his daughter will suffer the same fate. Meanwhile, James Hildern has scientific plans of his own, and he believes his half-brother's skeleton could be the key to reaching them.
This is more of a tragic film than a horrific one. Emmanuel Hildern tries to do what he thinks is the right thing, but all he brings about is madness and death. He may be misguided, but he certainly doesn't deserve his fate. Peter Cushing brilliantly puts across Emmanuel's emotional sensitivity, and Christopher Lee is at his sinister best as the domineering James Hildern. The film is stuffed with great Victorian atmosphere, and Freddie Francis produces one of this best directorial jobs. Other Cushing-Lee movies made around the same time, such as DRACULA A.D. 1972 and HORROR EXPRESS get more attention, but THE CREEPING FLESH is the better film.
I had never seen THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971) until watching it on this Blu-ray. It's definitely the type of movie that played in drive-ins throughout America in the 1970s. A family gets stranded in a small town in California, a town where (of course) strange occurrences and horrific murders are taking place. It's all due to a satanic cult who are attempting to use the children of the murder victims to give them new life. The movie has a weird, creepy atmosphere, but it's overlong--it probably would have worked better as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or NIGHT GALLERY. There's also a ton of plot holes--while I was watching it I felt there were a number of things that were not properly explained. I don't know if that was what the screenplay was aiming for, or if certain details were inadvertently left out. Strother Martin is one of those actors that you can't help but take notice of, no matter what he's doing, so seeing him as a dedicated Satanist is....interesting, to say the least. THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN isn't terrible, but it really has nothing in common with TORTURE GARDEN or THE CREEPING FLESH, and why it is in this collection is a mystery.
This Mill Creek Blu-ray is Region A, and as is usual with this company's product, there are no extras whatsoever. This is a shame, especially in the case of THE CREEPING FLESH--someone like Jonathan Rigby would have been perfect for an in-depth commentary. All three films look very good on this Blu-ray, and they are all in anamorphic widescreen. The colors certainly don't pop, but I can say that TORTURE GARDEN and THE CREEPING FLESH look better on this Blu-ray than they do on the Sony DVD releases of each film.
The biggest inducement to buy this Blu-ray is the price. My final cost from Amazon (before taxes) was only $6.74. That's a heck of a bargain--just THE CREEPING FLESH alone on Blu-ray would be worth more than that total. Peter Cushing fans will obviously want to get this disc. Hopefully Mill Creek will continue to release low-price classic horror and science-fiction films on Blu-ray in the future.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
Osprey Publishing is well known for their voluminous catalog of books on military history. Name any conflict in world history, and Osprey has probably put out a title covering it. Now the company looks at cinematic dramatizations of wars past in FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS.
FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS, written by military historian Tim Newark, might better be called FIFTY VERY GOOD WAR FILMS. There's more than a few titles picked by Newark that I wouldn't call "great"--such as BEHIND ENEMY LINES. Newark includes a lot of fictional stories set in WWII, such as 633 SQUADRON and VON RYAN'S EXPRESS, but neglects to cover much better fact-based films on the conflict such as SINK THE BISMARCK. There's only one silent film selected: THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, a documentary made up of mostly actual combat footage. This means you won't find THE BIG PARADE or WINGS in this book.
Another good title for this book would be FIFTY GREAT MODERN WAR FILMS, because 32 of the 50 films deal with World War II. As a matter of fact, there are no films covered which deal with a war before the 20th Century. You won't find any Civil War movies, or films set during the Napoleonic Era, which is surprising.
Each of the 50 films gets a brief critique and overview which lasts a few pages. Stills and poster reproductions for the movies are spread throughout the book. As usual with an Osprey title, the book has a very neat & efficient design.
FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS is a okay little book--it's only 7 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches in size--but I think it is written in mind for military buffs who are not movie fanatics. The author's analysis of the titles is decent but very generalized--if you are a major film expert you probably won't find out anything new. I got FIFTY GREAT WAR FILMS on sale from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers. I was hoping that it would be a bit more comprehensive in scope. I feel that the list of movies in this volume is more representative than definitive.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
THE SKULL (1965) is one of the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movie team-ups, although Lee is really more of a guest star (he's even listed in the credits as such). The movie was produced by Amicus, the company that was the main rival to Hammer Films, and it was directed by legendary cameraman Freddie Francis. Kino has just released the film on Region A Blu-ray.
Amicus is best known for their many anthology horror movies such as THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. THE SKULL, however, centers on just one tale. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), an expert on and collector of the occult, comes into possession of the actual skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade. Maitland believes that his occult studies give him insight into why people fear the unknown, but the man has no idea what is in store for him as the skull begins to exert its deadly power.
THE SKULL was based on a short story by Robert Bloch entitled (naturally) "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". I read the story when I was a teenager, and there's not much to it--I think it's about 15 pages long. Amicus producer Milton Subotsky adapted Bloch's story to feature-length, but according to Freddie Francis the script was still too short. Francis' solution was to give the movie as many visual highlights as possible. The director and cinematographer John Wilcox fill the Techniscope widescreen frame with all sorts of carefully composed shots (this movie should be used as a guide for young filmmakers on how to use widescreen). Francis takes Maitland's study, which is filled with various exotic knick knacks, and turns it into a miniature haunted house, with the use of expert camerawork and lighting. Not only does the movie have very little plot, it has very little dialogue as well, enabling Francis to tell the story in visual terms. This extenuates the fantastic elements of the tale, whereas more plot & dialogue might have diluted them.
The biggest visual highlight of all is the POV shots from "inside" the skull. Francis had a large mock-up of a skull's face attached to the front of a camera, and while the effect may be a bit obvious it works rather well. Francis would reuse this technique for the monster in THE CREEPING FLESH (another Cushing/Lee movie), and he even did it as a cinematographer in David Lynch's version of DUNE.
How the POV shots of THE SKULL were achieved
Francis was helped immeasurably by his lead actor Peter Cushing. During most of the film Maitland is by himself, which means Cushing had to convey to the audience the character's situation without dialogue or the help of other actors. As usual, Cushing comes through--what other actor could emotionally react to a fake skull rigged up with wires and not come across as ridiculous? This is one of Cushing's best performances in any movie. Maitland is an academic, but he's not a Baron or a Doctor from another period in history. He's a modern man, a man who's confident that his knowledge of the occult puts him above superstition. He finds out very quickly that he doesn't know as much as he thinks (most of Robert Bloch's short stories have protagonists who realize too late how naive they are).
THE SKULL has an amazing supporting cast. Christopher Lee makes the most of his small role as Maitland's friend and fellow collector, a man who once owned the Marquis' skull and knows all too well its destructive power. Patrick Wymark just about steals the film as Marco, the disreputable dealer who sells Maitland the skull. Very small roles are filled by the likes of Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, and Peter Woodthorpe. These actors may not have much screen time, but their combined talents make THE SKULL feel even more impressive.
Despite the fact that it's a short story with a lot of padding, THE SKULL is one of the best films Amicus ever made. The combination of Freddie Francis' visual flourishes and the expert playing of Peter Cushing and the supporting cast show that it is possible to take a slight script and make more out of it than what is written down on the page.
I first saw THE SKULL when it was shown by Svengoolie (he was "Son of Svengoolie" back then) sometime in the early 1980s. Of course in those days it was shown in pan and scan, and THE SKULL cannot be fully appreciated in this manner. Legend Films released THE SKULL on DVD and then Blu-ray in the 2000s. Kino's Blu-ray release is a bit better in the picture quality department, but the colors still look somewhat faded (that may have to do with the fact that it was filmed in Techniscope).
Kino features some enticing extras on this disc. Hammer experts Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby give separate talks on the movie, each lasting about a half-hour. The two authors each discuss the real Marquis de Sade, the background and history of Amicus, and other relevant details. An audio commentary is provided by Tim Lucas, editor of the now late and lamented VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine. Lucas is one the best home video commentators and he gives THE SKULL a comprehensive examination. I'm sure I've seen THE SKULL more than a dozen times over the years, yet Lucas pointed out a number of things I never noticed. There's also a "Trailers From Hell" segment on THE SKULL which has director Joe Dante sharing his thoughts on the movie.
I have to assume that if you are interested in a movie like THE SKULL, you probably own it already on home video. I would rate this Kino release as a worthy buy due to the extras.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959) is one of the lesser known entries from Hammer Films. One of the reasons this may be is due to the fact that though Christopher Lee and Hazel Court appear in the film, German actor Anton Diffring is the main star. The film itself is not all that great--but that didn't stop me from buying it again on Blu-ray, this time from Kino under their Studio Classics line. (The movie was released on Blu-ray by Legend Films a few years ago.)
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, like much of Hammer's early Gothic product, is a remake. After the success of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA, American studios were lining up to make deals with Hammer, and Paramount signed up the British company to make a new version of a 1944 film called THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET. That movie was based on a play by Barre Lyndon, and Hammer's Jimmy Sangster adapted the author's work. Unfortunately Sangster didn't change the story too much from its stage origins. THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is a very, very talky film, void of the weird situations Sangster usually came up with for his other Hammer scripts.
Anton Diffring plays Georges Bonnet, a well-to-do doctor and sculptor living in 1890 Paris. Despite Bonnet's classic good looks, he's a distant, mysterious figure..and that's because he's actually 104 years old. Bonnet has prolonged his life through gland transplants, and every ten years he moves to another location, reinventing himself to keep his secret. One of his former flames, a beautiful socialite named Janine (Hazel Court), comes across Bonnet, and attempts to renew their relationship. But Bonnet is more interested in having Janine's friend Dr. Gerard (Christopher Lee) perform the much needed gland transplant. Gerard refuses, but since Bonnet has killed several people over the years, he has no qualms in forcing Janine and Gerard to help him continue to literally cheat death.
Peter Cushing was originally supposed to have played Georges Bonnet, but the actor bowed out, supposedly due to his heavy workload. Personally, I believe that Cushing didn't want to do the film because he wasn't excited about the script (he was no fan of Jimmy Sangster's writing.) Georges Bonnet is the movie's biggest weakness. He's a cold, self-centered, arrogant person, someone that attracts no decent feelings from the audience. At least Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein has the excuse that all his disreputable dealings are in the name of scientific research--Bonnet can't even use that angle. Bonnet just wants to go on living forever and having affairs with gorgeous women that he can discard whenever he has a need to. As played by Diffring, Bonnet isn't even a villain you can enjoy watching--the man has no charm, and he doesn't even seem to relish his unnatural life. Since Bonnet is the main character, and he spends most of his time making speeches defending his actions, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH can be hard to get through at times.
Anton Diffring was not a bad actor, but on-screen he didn't have the warmest personality. This made Diffring perfect in the many German military officer roles he played throughout his acting career. Diffring appeared in more than a few other horror films--his best role in that genre was the lead in CIRCUS OF HORRORS. Diffring's mannered coldness was perfect for that over-the-top film. The actor had already starred in a TV adaptation of THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET (now thought lost) and appeared as Baron Frankenstein for Hammer in the TV pilot of TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, before he was cast as Georges Bonnet. Diffring just didn't have the unique ability to make a dangerous scientist engaging to an audience, like Peter Cushing. Most monster movie fans wonder how THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH would have turned out if it had starred Cushing. I think the movie might have turned out far differently, because Cushing would have asked for major rewrites. (Another reason I feel Cushing rejected the role is that he must have sensed that Bonnet was basically a watered-down version of Baron Frankenstein--and he had played that role twice already.)
Hazel Court looks absolutely stunning in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, but there's not much to the character of Janine. You wonder why someone as vivacious as Janine would even be interested in a cold fish like Bonnet--Court and Diffring have no chemistry together. During a scene where Janine is posing for a statue being created by Bonnet, a topless shot of the actress was filmed, but it was never included in the American or English versions. That shot (or even a picture of it) is NOT on this Blu-ray...the shot is probably the most famous thing about the movie!
Christopher Lee has the rather thankless role of Dr. Gerard. It's telling that at the time, Hammer never thought about having Lee replace Peter Cushing as Bonnet (that would have been interesting). Lee doesn't get much of a chance to shine, but he gives a fine performance nonetheless. For those folks who are not impressed with Lee as an actor, let me put it to you this way--could you imagine Bela Lugosi playing a "David Manners" type of role?
For whatever reason I never got to see THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH on TV during my younger days--I don't even think Svengoolie ever showed it. I didn't actually see the movie until it was released on DVD in the 2000s. Legend later put it out on Blu-ray. Kino's Region A disc has moderately better visual quality, but it still looks a bit washed out. The movie's main color seems to be gold-yellow--even the main titles and the main movie poster (pictured on the disc cover above) are yellow, giving it a different look than most Hammer productions made during the same period. It still has the plush art direction and production design one expects from a Hammer film.
What makes this Kino Blu-ray worthy are the extras. English authors and Hammer experts Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby give separate discussions on the film, each lasting about 17 minutes. Both men go into the shortcomings of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, and talk about the state of Hammer Films at the time, Cushing's turning down the role, etc. I could listen to Newman and Rigby talk about Hammer all day long, and I'm sure most fans of the company share that opinion. Troy Howarth provides another one of his fine audio commentaries. I can personally attest to the fact that Troy is a Hammer fan, and the lack of on-screen action gives him a chance to comprehensively discuss the company and the major members of the on-camera and off-camera crew.
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is not a very exciting film. The wannabe screenwriter inside me can think of so many ways the story could have been improved. One expects more from it--it may not have featured Cushing, but it had aboard most of the other essential members of the Hammer team: director Terence Fisher, cinematographer Jack Asher, Lee, Court, and Sangster. The real reason I bought this disc was because of the extras. Why would I rebuy a movie I'm not all that particularly impressed on Blu-ray?? Well, that's what movie geeks like me do. THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is more interesting for what it might have been instead of what it is.