Monday, November 27, 2017
A couple months ago one of my favorite Hammer actresses, Jennifer Daniel, passed away. In the blog post I wrote about her as a tribute I lamented how much of Daniel's on-camera work is unavailable to Americans. Recently I was on YouTube and I happened to stumble upon a film called MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE, a 1960 British crime drama starring Jennifer Daniel. The production also features a number of performers who would have or already had links to Hammer Films: John Cairney (THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES), Moira Redmond (NIGHTMARE), and John Van Eyssen (HORROR OF DRACULA).
MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE was part of a series of black & white low-budget mystery stories based on the work of famed writer Edgar Wallace. These films were made at the Merton Park Studios by Anglo-Amalgamated, and they were released in the U.K. as second features. In America the films were shown on syndicated TV as EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERY THEATER. I'm familiar with the series of German "Krimi" films adapted from Edgar Wallace, but I must admit I had no knowledge of the British series.
I can only judge the British Edgar Wallace films from my viewing of MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE, but according to my internet research on the series, the individual entries were very similar. While the German Edgar Wallace films contained such elements as science-fiction, horror, and fantastic adventure, MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE is much more down-to-earth.
The story concerns Larry Wilson (John Cairney), a young man who is serving time for a bank robbery. Larry sets up a fake marriage to the daughter (Jennifer Daniel) of a former cell-mate--this enables Larry to be let out (under police supervision) for the ceremony. Larry manages to escape and hide out at his ex-cell-mate's house. Larry plans to visit his girlfriend (Moira Redmond), who has been hiding the money from the bank robbery...but the wanted man finds out that the woman is now married to the Inspector (John Van Eyssen) who put him in jail! Larry rightfully assumes that his girlfriend and the retired Inspector are sharing the loot, and he sets his sights on tracking them down and getting revenge...but Larry has someone on his trail--another police official (Harry H. Corbett) who is determined to bring him to justice.
It's easy to see from watching MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE why the British Edgar Wallace series was shown on American TV. MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE is about an hour long, and it was filmed by director Clive Donner in a very straightforward, no-frills manner. The story has no overt violence or provocative situations--it reminded me very much of a typical 1960s TV episode. John Cairney brings a lot of intensity to the desperate, hotheaded Wilson, but it's hard to feel any sympathy for him. Jennifer Daniel very capably fills out the "nice girl" role--while watching this I kept thinking that her character was too sensible to be involved in Larry's schemes, and sure enough, she winds up telling all to the police. John Van Eyssen is quite smarmy as the crooked Inspector, but Harry H. Corbett makes the biggest impression as the dogged "regular guy" detective who solves the case.
I certainly wouldn't call MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE a spectacular discovery--from my point of view it's interesting for the cast more than anything else. The poster that you can see above is probably more exciting than anything that happens in the film. I would be interested in seeing more entries from this British Edgar Wallace series--since they were all made in the early 1960s I'm sure there are several Hammer veterans involved in them. For me the main draw here was seeing Jennifer Daniel. She's as beautiful as she was in her Hammer roles, but unfortunately she really doesn't get much to do here.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
Kino Lorber adds to their growing collection of fine Spaghetti Western Blu-ray releases with THE MERCENARY, a 1968 film directed by Sergio Corbucci. (The movie is also known as A PROFESSIONAL GUN.)
This is one of the many Euro Westerns set during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th Century. Paco Roman (Tony Musante) is a peasant mine worker who leads a revolt against his bosses. Paco encounters gun-for-hire Sergei "The Polack" Kowalski (Franco Nero), and the mercenary helps the peasant become a revolutionary hero. Paco's continued reliance on Kowalski annoys determined rebel Columba (Giovanna Ralli). Despite her frustration Columba is in love with Paco, and she convinces him to turn against Kowalski....but the revolutionaries find out that fighting for the people is a lot more complicated than they think.
THE MERCENARY features a typical Spaghetti Western situation with a cool, calculated gringo paired with an emotive, rough-edged Mexican national. Franco Nero brings his usual charismatic screen presence to the role of Kowalski, and he carries the film. Tony Musante is okay as Paco, but this is the type of role would be better suited for Tomas Milian. (When Sergio Corbucci basically remade THE MERCENARY a few years later as COMPANEROS, he cast Milian alongside Nero.) Giovanna Ralli looks more like a fashion model instead of a Mexican peasant woman, but her character of Columba happens to be the most interesting. She's totally committed to the revolution, and she points out time and again how Paco is basically subservient to Kowalski--yet at the same time Columba is in love with Paco and stays loyal to him no matter what. The interaction between Paco, Kowalski, and Columba is what sets THE MERCENARY apart from other films of its type.
Jack Palance also appears in this movie, as the very strange Curly, another gun-for-hire who works against Kowalski and the revolutionaries. Just like Franco Nero, Palance would play a variation of his THE MERCENARY character in COMPANEROS.
THE MERCENARY isn't as nihilistic as other Corbucci films such as DJANGO and NAVAJO JOE, but it still has plenty of violent action. This movie also appears to have a bigger budget than the usual Corbucci picture, and they may be due to it being produced by Alberto Grimaldi. Because of the Mexican Revolution aspects of the story many have called THE MERCENARY a "political" Western...but I can't say that I agree with that. Paco and his followers are basically a rag-tag group of bandits, and what success they do have is owed almost entirely to Kowalski. Paco is constantly having his hide saved by the white European mercenary, even at the very end of the film. Nero's Kowalski is only interested in making money off of whatever situation he winds up in--he even demands that Paco draw up a contract for his services, a contract that includes bonuses and perks! The "people" are not presented all that sympathetically in THE MERCENARY. If anything, I think the film is rather sardonic toward the left-wing politics of the late 1960s. (The script for THE MERCENARY was written by Euro Western veteran Luciano Vincenzoni.)
Kino presents THE MERCENARY in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the movie looks very fine. An audio commentary is provided featuring Alex Cox, who shares his extensive knowledge on the Spaghetti Western genre. A couple of animated image galleries are included, and these are backed with selections from the movie's music score by the brilliant Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai.
Thursday, November 23, 2017
During this year's Monster Bash Conference, I met the esteemed Derek Koch, the man behind the fantastic Monster Kid Radio Podcast. I informed Derek that I would love to be a guest on the show....and a few weeks later Derek called me up and we discussed the 1972 Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee film "The Creeping Flesh". (You wouldn't expect me to talk about a Julia Roberts movie, would you???)
We had a great time, and I think that comes out on the broadcast. I guess this could be considered my first "official" interview....hopefully I won't put anyone to sleep. I'm writing this post on the very day of Thanksgiving, so if you've got nothing to do while resting yourself after the big dinner, I suggest avoiding the crappy NFL games and listen to Derek and I examine what I think is one of the most underrated Cushing-Lee films, and maybe even one of the most underrated examples of English Gothic Cinema. And please check out the other podcasts that Derek has produced....there's all sorts of great geeky stuff in them!
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
The best way I can sum up JUSTICE LEAGUE is that it's not as bad as I thought it would be--but not as good as it should be.
What helps JUSTICE LEAGUE is that it's only two hours long, and filled with all sorts of plot. There's so much stuff going on that you have a tendency to overlook some of the film's weaknesses. First of all the heroes (Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg) need to be gathered together, and then the villain's grand scheme needs to be explained. And then there's the Superman sub-plot.
What hurts JUSTICE LEAGUE the most is the main villain. I have to say that Steppenwolf does not make this movie a Magic Carpet Ride. In the DC Comics Universe the character is associated with Darkseid, a nemesis I've never been all that impressed with. Even when I was regularly reading DC Comics, I never got into the whole "Outer Realms" stories--they were too outlandish and fantastical for me. Steppenwolf is another of those far too many comic book movie bad guys that seem to have unlimited power, but in the end wind up being fairly easy to dispose of. Steppenwolf is basically a Dollar General version of Sauron. His army of parademons (they reminded me of the flying monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ) serve the same purpose as the Trade Federation droids did in the Star Wars prequels--they're a non-human threat that can be killed by the hundreds without causing the movie to gain an R rating. Since there was so much at stake with JUSTICE LEAGUE, why wasn't a more well-known threat used, such as, say, Braniac? My theory is that the name brand DC villains are being saved for future films....but the way things are going, there may not be all that many DC movies headed our way.
When it comes to the good guys in JUSTICE LEAGUE, Wonder Woman absolutely comes out on top. Gal Gadot has more charisma than all the other heroes put together, and things brighten up considerably when she is on the screen. If there really is an official DC Movie Universe, Gadot's WW is definitely the true star of it. I enjoyed Ezra Miller's version of the Flash, mainly because the way the character is portrayed here is almost exactly the way he is in the Justice League animated series.
When I found out that Cyborg was going to be in JUSTICE LEAGUE, I wasn't too impressed...but I have to say that the movie (and actor Ray Fisher) did a very good job of making the character interesting. Jason Momoa's Aquaman wasn't the train wreck I thought it was going to be--but I'm still not going to be first in line to see the AQUAMAN movie when it comes out. As for Ben Affleck's Batman--with all the stuff going on in the story, he seemed kind of lost. Batman wouldn't be the type of person to go running around trying to get other superheroes to join him--that's more of Superman's thing. But, oh yeah, Superman couldn't do that here because he was killed off by Doomsday.
It won't be a big revelation to say that Superman returns (see what I did there?). In all honesty, though, it wouldn't have hurt this movie all that much if he hadn't made an appearance...it might have even helped it. I'm still not totally sold on Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel or Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
There where times during JUSTICE LEAGUE when the movie felt a bit schizophrenic--due of course to the transition from Zach Snyder to Joss Whedon during production. There's more attempts at humor here, and while some of it falls flat, a few of the lines did make me smile. JUSTICE LEAGUE isn't the overlong slog that BATMAN V SUPERMAN was. I would say it's worth going to see on the big screen. Overall, it's an okay film.
But...maybe that's the problem. This is the Justice League, for crying out loud. This should be a momentous production, one of the most astounding comic book movies ever. It should be more than just....okay.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Kino Lorber has been releasing a number of renowned Spaghetti Westerns on Region A Blu-ray in the last few years, and now DEATH RIDES A HORSE can be added to the list. The 1967 Italian film stars Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law.
DEATH RIDES A HORSE begins with a harrowing sequence detailing the massacre of a frontier family by bandits. The only survivor is a young boy, and fifteen years later the now-grown Bill (John Phillip Law) seethes for revenge. Bill comes upon a link to his family's killers with the release from jail of the mysterious Ryan (Lee Van Cleef). Ryan has his own reasons to find the members of the murderous gang, and he and Bill form an uneasy partnership. The two men wind up besieged at the bandits' Mexican hideout, where a personal revelation further complicates matters.
Many Lee Van Cleef fans consider DEATH RIDES A HORSE to be the actor's best Euro Western not directed by Sergio Leone. The movie wasn't directed by Sergio Corbucci or Sergio Sollima, either....Giulio Petroni helmed this tale, and he did an excellent job. DEATH RIDES A HORSE has a lot in common with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (Luciano Vincenzoni was a screenwriter on both films). The two movies feature flashbacks to a horrific event, two contrasting men after the same group of bandits for their own personal reasons, a climatic shootout at the villains' secret lair, and a major plot twist. The older and more clever gunfighter paired with a younger and more tempestuous character scenario would be a plot point in almost every Spaghetti Western Lee Van Cleef starred in. Van Cleef is perfect as the ultra-cool ex-con Ryan, and he acts as something of a mentor to the vengeance-obsessed Bill. John Phillip Law is very good as Bill, and it's surprising that he didn't appear in more movies of this type. I do have to say that there were times I felt that Law was trying to do a Man With No Name impression.
The supporting cast includes Sergio Leone veterans Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega, and British character actor Anthony Dawson. It would seem unusual for a performer like Dawson to be in a Spaghetti Western, but he does get to participate in a well-staged gunfight with Law, one of the movie's best moments.
DEATH RIDES A HORSE has a few touches of sardonic humor, but overall it is a very grim affair. The opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. Most of the outlandish flourishes one expects from a typical Euro Western are not to be found here. Ennio Morricone's magnificent but doom-laden score extenuates the dour attitude. Mention must be made of Carlo Carlini's cinematography and Eraldo Da Roma's editing, which are both superb.
Kino's Blu-ray of DEATH RIDES A HORSE presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (for some reason the disc case says it is in 1.85:1). I wouldn't call the visual quality spectacular, but it's probably the best this movie is going to look on home video. The main extra is a audio commentary by independent filmmaker Alex Cox. He offers up a lot of info on the movie, comparing it to other Spaghetti Westerns, and he's quite knowledgeable on the locations used. There are a number of stretches where Cox doesn't say anything, as if he's caught up in watching the movie.
For those that do buy this disc (and I would recommend that you do), here's a helpful tidbit--when you get to the menu screen, Ennio Morricone's main theme for the film plays out in its entirety in full-bodied 5.1 audio.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
I've extolled the virtues of Jonathan Rigby's book ENGLISH GOTHIC several times on this blog. Last year saw the release of EURO GOTHIC, and now Rigby's AMERICAN GOTHIC has been re-released in a revised and expanded hardcover edition from Signum Books.
The first edition of AMERICAN GOTHIC came out about ten years ago in softcover. That version covered American horror films from the silent era to roughly 1956. The new edition adds a brand new chapter going up to 1959, right before the release of HOUSE OF USHER and PSYCHO. The book has the same clean efficient design as ENGLISH GOTHIC and EURO GOTHIC.
In the new AMERICAN GOTHIC Rigby singles out 111 different films for special coverage, and he briefly examines hundreds more. The volume is filled with black & white stills from the features discussed, and there are two sections of color illustrations. The book doesn't just deal with the famous usual suspects--many low-budget (and no-budget) independent films are included.
If you are any sort of a classic horror film fan, you've no doubt seen or read about most of the movies in AMERICAN GOTHIC dozens of times. Despite that, Rigby still is able to bring insightful analysis and dry humor to the subject. The author makes his points clearly, and avoids excessive plot synopsis. Rigby looks at the films chronologically, which allows him to place the titles in the context and times in which they were made.
The main thing that a reader takes away from AMERICAN GOTHIC is how much early 20th Century "old dark house"/mystery novels and theatrical plays influenced the development of the American horror film--a far greater influence than one might suspect.
I do wish that Rigby had continued the book into the 1960s, and reviewed the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe film series. But there's still 384 pages here of entertaining and informative reading. The best compliment I can give to any film book is that reading it made me want to watch the titles discussed all over again--and AMERICAN GOTHIC certainly does that.
For those folks serious in learning about the history of horror films, any volume of Rigby's "Gothic Trilogy"--or better yet, all three--is essential.
Jonathan Rigby's Gothic Trilogy
Sunday, November 12, 2017
RETURN OF THE APE MAN (1944) was the last of the infamous "Monogram Nine", a group of very low-budget horror films from that Poverty Row studio starring Bela Lugosi. It has nothing to do with THE APE MAN (1943), which was also released by Monogram and starred Bela. Both movies do have a number of similarities--the main one being that they are as goofy as all get out. RETURN OF THE APE MAN has just received an official home video release from Olive Films.
The story starts out with two Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and John Gilmore (John Carradine) thawing out a tramp who has been in frozen suspended animation for four months. The poor fellow wakes up with no memory of the experience, and since he seems hale and hearty, the scientists immediately send him on his way, with Gilmore giving him five bucks for his trouble! (The professors don't even worry about keeping a tab on the homeless guy to see if there's any aftereffects--for all they know, the guy could have dropped dead five minutes after he left the laboratory.) Dexter (we never learn his first name) is now convinced that a human being can be kept in frozen preserve for years and years. Dexter decides to go to the Arctic in an attempt to find a frozen prehistoric being, and Gilmore, despite his misgivings, goes along.
In a very tacky looking fake "Arctic" indoor set (augmented by stock footage), the scientists do find a frozen man, and they take him back to America. Lugosi proceeds to thaw him out (with the use of a blowtorch), and the ancient fellow is alive! Dexter next plans to use brain surgery--and a modern man's brain--to advance the prehistoric man's intelligence. Dexter sets his sights on the fiancee of Gilmore's niece, and he manages to get the young man into his house and put him under, but Gilmore stops him at the very last moment before surgery. Gilmore isn't smart enough to tell the authorities about what's going on, and sure enough the "ape man" escapes from Dexter's Laboratory (sorry DeeDee) and creates havoc. Dexter convinces Gilmore to help him destroy the beast--but it's all a ruse to get Gilmore's brain in the creature, which does happen. The "ape man" is now advanced--well, advanced enough to talk like the MGM version of Tarzan. Of course, Dexter can't control him, and the part-Gilmore escapes again, killing Gilmore's wife and kidnapping his niece, leading to a fiery climax.
As usual, merely describing the plot of a Bela Lugosi/Monogram picture in no way does it proper justice. All the events I've described take place in about an hour's running time, but due to Phil Rosen's rather generic direction, it seems longer. Both Lugosi and Carradine here seem a bit more reserved than usual. Bela's Prof. Dexter is a perpetually grumpy sort of fellow--the only time we get to see the expected wicked gleam in Bela's eye is when he finds out his brain surgery on the ape man is a success (if you want to call it that). Carradine's Gilmore is so high-minded that when he's captured by Lugosi he almost begs the man to use him as a guinea pig so no one else gets hurt. The two actors do an okay job here, but I expected a little more verve out of them (I'm sure though that it was hard for any performer to get fired up over acting in a movie like this).
If you have seen the photo above, you'll notice that the great character actor George Zucco gets third billing in this film. That was because he was supposed to have played the Ape Man. Zucco did not play the role--Frank Moran did. Some say that when the creature is first thawed out and is lying on a table in Dexter's Laboratory (again, DeeDee) that it is Zucco, but it's hard to tell. Most monster movie experts say that Zucco left the project saying he was "ill"--others say that Zucco was so angry at his role he simply walked away from the movie. There is one still that does show Zucco as the Ape Man, so he did actually appear on set--but how much time he spent on the film, and what, if anything, was shot with him remains a mystery. Even esteemed classic horror historians Greg Mank and Tom Weaver don't really know the exact details of Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN. One thing is for sure--Zucco does get billing on the film's credits. I hope he at least got paid for that! Monogram did a lot of crazy things--but casting the erudite and very British Zucco as a half-witted brutish caveman takes the cake. My own personal theory is that because Dexter gave the ape man part of Gilmore's brain, the creature's intelligence was supposed to develop over the movie's running time, and Zucco's version of the creature would have had more dialogue and more scenes which required expressive acting. But we'll never know.
Just about all that remains of George Zucco's involvement in RETURN OF THE APE MAN
(Zucco is in the middle, flaked by Bela Lugosi and John Carradine)
Frank Moran plays the thawed-out throwback as a typical movie caveman--he's shaggy, unkempt, and has limited vocabulary. The movie does try to show that something of Gilmore is striving to come out of the creature after Dexter's operation. The Ape Man does return to Gilmore's home, and once there he begins to play "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano (earlier it had been established that was Gilmore's favorite piece of music). When the Ape Gilmore encounters his wife, he seems to try and make some sort of contact with her, but then winds up strangling the woman. (Did Gilmore have some issues with his wife?) This idea of a victim of a forced brain transplant going back to his home and not being recognized by a mystified wife would be examined far much better in Hammer's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. The very beginning of RETURN OF THE APE MAN, with has a sequence involving a man being restored to life after being frozen, also reminds one of a later Hammer film: FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. For all its inherent goofiness, RETURN OF THE APE MAN does present a few interesting themes that later movies would take better advantage of.
What makes RETURN OF THE APE MAN really goofy is its climax, which has the prehistoric man running around with Gilmore's niece slung over his shoulder like a sack of laundry. (The Ape Man's interest in the pretty young niece makes one wonder if Gilmore had repressed feelings for the girl.) The niece is played by Judith Gibson, who would later change her stage name to Teala Loring, and her fiancee is played by Michael Ames, who would later change his name to Tod Andrews. (In his fantastic book POVERTY ROW HORRORS!, Tom Weaver jokes that it was RETURN OF THE APE MAN that caused the actors to assume different monikers.) Lugosi winds up getting killed off ten minutes before the film ends, which is a waste....while the Ape Man is cornered in Dexter's...er, lab and is burned to death. (The cops on the scene talk about how they hope the fire department takes their time getting to the blaze.)
Olive Films has released RETURN OF THE APE MAN on Blu-ray and DVD. I bought the DVD to save a few bucks...this is, after all, a low-budget film in full-frame black and white. The visual quality on this Olive presentation is acceptable, nothing more. While some sequences look a bit better than others, for most of the time the image is very soft. I doubt that the Blu-ray version of this film would look that much better. As usual with Olive Films, there are no extras whatsoever.
I wouldn't rank RETURN OF THE APE MAN as even one of the best Lugosi/Monogram pictures, but it is nice to see it get an official home video release. Any film with Bela, John Carradine, and a crackpot caveman can't be all bad.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
This post is the direct result of the announcement that Disney is going to produce another Star Wars trilogy, one that will deal with new characters and a new story line.
I'm sure most of you are thinking, "You love Star Wars, don't you Dan? Isn't this great??" Yeah, I love Star Wars. But my definition of Star Wars is the Sacred Original Trilogy. I loved ROGUE ONE, and the CLONE WARS and REBELS animated TV shows are very good. But how much Star Wars do we really need?
To me, Star Wars is supposed to be special--like ice cream. You wouldn't want to eat ice cream three times a day, every single day. THE LAST JEDI will come out this year, and the Han Solo film will come out next year, and in 2019 the final part of the second trilogy is expected to be released. This just announced trilogy is scheduled to begin in 2020...which means we are probably going to have new Star Wars movies every year in the immediate future.
The films in the original Star Wars trilogy were released three years apart--and as a kid that seemed an interminable time. But it made you anticipate and appreciate the movies even more. It made the movies seem more special.
I fully understand why Disney is cranking out as much Star Wars product as possible. I have no problem with people trying to make money off of creative endeavors--that's something I want to do myself someday. But with all these titles coming out, it's easy to foresee the watering-down of the Star Wars Universe.
Just because you slap the Star Wars label onto something doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good. You can make a rom-com, and put Bib Fortuna in it for five minutes, and technically you can call that a Star Wars film. As we have learned from the prequels, finding out more information about the Star Wars Universe doesn't guarantee to increase our enjoyment of it.
My friend Will McKinley (not the 25th President of the United States) has warned of "Star Wars Fatigue". Is it possible to be tired of Star Wars?? Maybe...but I think it has to do more with "Franchise Fatigue" than Star Wars in particular.
We live in an age of Geek Culture. One of the most important elements of Geek Culture is that you don't just watch filmed entertainment--you obsess over it, you totally envelope yourself in it, you wallow in the minutiae. Being a Geek requires a lot of time and effort...and money.
Think about all the big-time entertainment franchises that are active today. Star Wars, Star Trek, The Walking Dead, the Marvel movies, the DC movies, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Stranger Things...and I've just scratched the surface. There's so much Geek stuff out there that you have to be independently wealthy (and have a lot of time on your hands) to keep up with it all.
The result is that when one of these many Geek Franchise titles comes out, one feels almost obligated to see it. Nearly everything in entertainment is now part of some expanded universe, or part of some vast connection. The idea of an original stand-alone movie, one that does not have well-known characters, and isn't connected with any other medium, seems almost quaint.
I can't tell you how many times over the past few years someone has told me, "Dan, you need to see this movie/TV show because it's the kind of thing you're supposed to like." When you watch something because you're supposed to see it--you're putting it on the same level as getting the oil changed in your car or doing the laundry. The movies and TV shows that I love the most are the ones I discovered on my own. Today it's almost impossible to stumble upon a movie or a TV show, because we are inundated with so much media on everything.
I know I sound like a grouchy uptight white guy (maybe because I am one), but the anticipation of looking forward to the release of a major genre film has lessened considerably for me over the years. It seems that they come out almost every other week now. And when they do come out, they inevitably do not live up to all the internet hype.
When I was a kid, there wasn't a lot of big-time science-fiction movies, or fantasy films, or comic book pictures. In other words, you very rarely got ice cream. Now, you can eat ice cream 24/7, if that's what you want to do.
Monday, November 6, 2017
Criterion has pulled out all the stops for their Blu-ray release of Stanley Kubrick's 1975 historical epic BARRY LYNDON. An entire extra disc is needed for all of the extras.
BARRY LYNDON has never seemed to accumulate the kudos that more renowned Kubrick films have garnered over the years--films such as DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and THE SHINING. It seems that appreciation for it has started to grow recently, however. BARRY LYNDON is one of the most sumptuously photographed movies ever made--you can literally freeze frame the disc at any point and wind up with an image that could be hung inside a portrait gallery. There were no sets used during the making of BARRY LYNDON, and the result is that the movie avoids the typical Hollywood history aspects of cinema set in the past. I'm no expert on late 18th Century Europe, but if I was able to go back to that time period and find out that it didn't look or feel like BARRY LYNDON, I'd be extremely disappointed.
If there is one particular thing about BARRY LYNDON that does not seem to jibe, it may be Ryan O'Neal's performance as the title character. When I first saw BARRY LYNDON I was convinced that O'Neal was miscast--that he was too American, too modern to portray an 18th Century opportunistic Irishman. I wondered how the movie would have been if someone who was more of an "actor's actor" had played the role....Malcolm McDowell, perhaps?
After seeing the movie a number of times since then I am now of the opinion that O'Neal was exactly what Kubrick wanted. O'Neal sticks out like a sore thumb...and that's one of the points of the film. No matter what situation Barry finds himself in, no matter how he is able to take advantage of his surroundings, the man simply does not fit in. He's an eternal outsider. He's also not very likable either, which doesn't make this film attractive for a mainstream audience (especially if you consider that it is three hours long). Most movie historical epics deal with famous (or infamous) real-life characters, or fictional characters who are involved in great events or deeds. Barry does take part in the Seven Year's War, but that's really a minor incident in his story. Kubrick isn't interested in big exciting moments here--he's more concerned with observing Barry and whoever or whatever he comes across. Some may find BARRY LYNDON to be cold and remote, but that could be said about every Stanley Kubrick production.
Nearly every aspect of BARRY LYNDON is explored on the extras disc in this Criterion Blu-ray--photography, production design, costumes, music, editing, sound, etc. Watching all these extras only made me want to know even more about the film. Criterion also provides a 42-page booklet which has an essay on the film by Geoffrey O'Brien and reprints two different articles on the film's visuals from AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHER magazine.
Criterion presents BARRY LYNDON in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, and in my opinion it looks even better than the Warners Blu-ray of the film that was released a few years ago. Two soundtracks are provided--mono and an alternate 5.1 surround mix.
Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest--and most meticulous--filmmakers of all time. Every single second of BARRY LYNDON reinforces that. Criterion has come out with editions of a number of Kubrick's films, and since next year is the 50th anniversary of 2001, I can't help but hope that the company will do the ultimate release of that classic.
Thursday, November 2, 2017
Not that long ago I wrote a blog post on the 1969 Hammer Sci-fi film MOON ZERO TWO, since it was featured in the latest issue of Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS magazine. Another film was also featured in that issue--TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER, the very last Hammer horror film made in the 20th Century.
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was released in 1976, way after the English Gothic horror boom had ended. The movie was one of many attempts by Hammer head Michael Carreras to change the company's direction and make it more relevant to the changing tastes of film viewers. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER had a very torturous and convoluted production history, which is definitively chronicled in David Taylor's article in LSOH #39. I won't go into the various details of what led up to the film, but considering the state of Hammer at the time, it's a minor miracle the movie got made at all.
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER was based on a novel by English writer (and occult expert) Dennis Wheatley. Hammer had already adapted Wheatley's work before--their screen version of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT remains one of the company's best films--and they felt that using the author again might give them something akin to THE EXORCIST. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER isn't anywhere near the same level as THE EXORCIST, or THE OMEN, which came out later in 1976.
The front cover of LSOH #39, with artwork by Belle Dee
TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER has an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Michael Rayner (Christopher Lee), attempting to create an avatar from the combination of a demon baby and a young nun named Catherine (Nastassja Kinski). At least...I think that's what Rayner is trying to do--the priest's evil plan is somewhat perplexing. Catherine's father (Denholm Elliott) asks best-selling occult author John Verney (Richard Widmark) to help his daughter. Verney is a bit skeptical, but he soon comes to find out that he really is dealing with dangerous dark forces.
The story of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is formatted much like a mystery--the audience finds out what is going on right along with the characters, and very little is explained. Some may contend that this gives the film a sense of unease, but personally I find TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER confusing to watch. The movie has a very abrupt editing style--a number of sequences seem to be leading up to something, and then the movie switches over to another sequence entirely. One of the writers on the film was Christopher Wicking, a man who penned a number of hard-to-follow horror films...but in his article David Taylor reveals that another writer, Gerald Vaughn-Hughes, was on the set almost everyday rewriting scenes with director Peter Sykes. (Taylor also explains that the film has very little in common with the novel that it is supposedly based on.)
One big problem with TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is Richard Widmark. According to Taylor's article, the past-his-prime Hollywood star wasn't enthusiastic about making the film, and he didn't get along with most of the cast & crew. Watching the movie you can't help but notice how forlorn and uninspired Widmark looks...and I don't think it has anything to do with his character's feelings on battling Satanic evil. If the nominal lead of the film acts as if he doesn't want to be there...why should the audience?
Christopher Lee, as expected, is the best thing about the film. He's absolutely chilling as Father Michael...but instead of ranting and raving, he spends most of the story with a satisfied smile on his face, as if he's in a diabolic state of grace. Richard Widmark may have been the bigger mainstream name, but Lee was the real star here. Denholm Elliott is very good as Catherine's tormented father.
As for Nastassja Kinski, as Catherine....she's one of the main reasons it is hard for me to appreciate this film. It's not that her performance is bad, it's just...if you go by the most recognized date on the internet, Kinski was only 14 years old during the production of TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. Kinski not only is present during a Satanic orgy in the movie, she also has a full-frontal nude scene. Kinski's supposed age is one of the many unpleasant things in this movie. I understand that the movie is supposed to be unpleasant--it has to do with Satanism, after all. But when it comes to horror films, I'm more drawn to Saturday afternoon creature features, or Gothic tales set in a European never-neverland. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is a contemporary film, and it's not comfortable to see a scene involving a woman being strapped down while giving birth to a demon baby (and dying because of the experience).
And then there's the ending to TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. I won't give it away here, but it's rather anti-climatic...so much so, that you're liable to exclaim, "That's it???" One thing the ending does do, it brings down the entire history of 20th Century Hammer theatrical horror with a whimper instead of a bang.
There are a few Hammer fans who have come to appreciate TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. For myself, I found reading David Taylor's article about the making of the movie was more entertaining than actually watching it. I don't believe that TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER killed off Hammer Films--I think the company was basically doomed no matter what they did. Director Peter Sykes tried to bring some atmosphere to it, and I do have to point out that Paul Glass' music is compelling, but even Christopher Lee can't overcome a confusing and mystifying script.