Saturday, September 28, 2019

THE ALAMO (2004)

My birthday was earlier this week, and as a present my great friend Josh Kennedy sent me a DVD of the 2004 version of THE ALAMO. Josh has been trying to get me to see this movie for years.

Josh is a native Texan, which means that the legend of the Alamo has made a huge impression on him. Josh can literally recite any line of dialogue from John Wayne's THE ALAMO at the drop of a hat. Josh loves the Wayne version, but he also realizes that it is a dramatic interpretation of the actual historical events. He's mentioned to me several times how the 2004 THE ALAMO takes a more nuanced and realistic approach to the subject.

The 2004 THE ALAMO does go for a more "warts and all" approach. The three main characters are still Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and William Travis (Patrick Wilson), but the script (co-written by director John Lee Hancock) takes great pains to try and cover various angles of the tale. Mexican General Santa Anna is a minor character in the film, and it is shown that native-born Mexicans fought alongside Travis and his men. The Mexican soldiers are not portrayed as just faceless villains, and the defenders of the Alamo are not set up as pure & noble heroes. The physical realization of the Alamo compound is much more accurate than the John Wayne version, and the costumes are more realistic than the typical generic "Hollywood Western" look.

The movie also tries to set up the events that led up to the siege of the Alamo in 1836, with infighting between Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) and the leaders of the Texas independent movement. There's also plenty of tension between Travis and Jim Bowie, but it is portrayed in a much less florid manner than in the Wayne version.

John Wayne's Davy Crockett was a larger-than-life figure (with the Duke playing him, what else could he be?). Billy Bob Thornton's Crockett is a man almost haunted by his fame--he feels that he may not be able to live up to his reputation. Thornton's Crockett literally does more fiddling than fighting, and he also gets most of the script's best lines (such as "We're gonna need more men"). Patrick Wilson's Travis is set up as a lightweight as a counterpoint to Jason Patric's brooding Jim Bowie, who spends most of the time sick in bed (just as he really did during his time at the Alamo.) What is missing in this film are the many classic Hollywood character actors that enlivened so many other historical cinematic epics.

Patrick Wilson as William Travis, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie

The actor that made the biggest impression on me was Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston. This may be due to the end of the film, which shows what happened after the slaughter of the Alamo defenders. The movie does not climax with the ending of the siege of the Alamo, as one might expect. It goes on to show how Sam Houston led his ragtag army to victory against the Mexican forces of Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto. That victory guaranteed Texas independence, and it is a subject that is worthy of a entire film itself. In fact the San Jacinto sequence feels somewhat like an extended trailer for a sequel to THE ALAMO. I happen to think it's an excellent sequence, and I'm sure it was included to make the ending of the film less of a downer.

The 2004 THE ALAMO is a very good film, but it is also a very somber one, with almost no humor (there's no John Wayne-John Ford style rough housing here). It's not nearly as long as the John Wayne THE ALAMO, but there are times when it feels longer. Director John Lee Hancock is a Texan, and one can tell he tried to cover all the bases when it came to the facts behind the Alamo. Hancock avoids the contrived moments that one expects from an historical epic. He stays away from using CGI or outlandish editing techniques during the battle scenes. Hancock also doesn't use wild camera movements--instead he takes advantage of Dean Semler's atmospheric cinematography. The co-producer of the film was Ron Howard, and the movie does have some of the dramatic style one sees in a Ron Howard-directed title.

I liked the 2004 THE ALAMO. I appreciated the idea of making a film that takes a more measured and realistic approach toward the Alamo story. It's not a grand spectacular epic, but then again that wasn't the approach that the filmmakers decided to take. It's a film that history buffs will especially enjoy.

Saturday, September 21, 2019


A couple weeks ago I visited my brother Robert in Illinois, and while there we went to a Half-Price Books store. I picked up three titles--one on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, a Carole Lombard biography, and THE MAKING OF DUNE.

The 1984 version of DUNE, which was directed by David Lynch, is now considered an expensive flop. It does have a few fans now, such as myself, who appreciate how the movie didn't try to mainstream Frank Herbert's complex novel. The film was backed and released by Universal, and the company made a large effort to promote it. A ton of DUNE merchandise was released, including the 300 page book THE MAKING OF DUNE, which was written by Ed Naha.

Many big-budget genre films of the 1980s were the subject of "Making Of" books, or at least "Making Of" special magazines, which were usually published by STARLOG. Ed Naha was a writer for STARLOG, and he was familiar with that magazine's style: giving the reader an inside look at a science-fiction/fantasy movie or TV project without being critical or controversial about it. Today the STARLOG way of covering genre entertainment would never fly--there's no such thing as being non-judgmental on today's social media. One has to remember that back in the 1980s, Geek Culture had not taken over mainstream entertainment yet. If you were a science-fiction or horror movie fan back in the Eighties, the main way you got info on what was going on in those genres was from magazines like STARLOG, FANGORIA, and CINEFANTASTIQUE. Every so often, a show like ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT might do a short segment on a fantastic film or TV program, but it was usually in a condescending manner.

One also has to remember that the "Making Of" books & magazines for 1980s genre films were made to promote the product. This approach may seem disingenuous now, but if you are a publicist on a film, are you going to let any writer on a set if they work for a publication that trashes movies? A film geek in the 1980s did not have access to instant information on any subject, so whatever news one could get about upcoming genre films was welcome, no matter how biased that info might be.

THE MAKING OF DUNE is obviously meant to highlight the movie, but it's still a worthy read, especially for fans. Naha takes the reader through all aspects of production, and he even covers the extensive special effects work done for the film. The FX is not as extensively analyzed as, say, CINEFEX or CINEFANTASTIQUE would have done it, but the reader gets the general idea of what was involved. Naha's writing style is clear and to the point--this is a book written for the general public, not for hardcore movie enthusiasts. The volume also includes dozens of behind-the-scenes photos.

Naha had access to all the principal people involved in the making of the film, such as David Lynch, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, and cinematographer Freddie Francis. Naha also interviewed most of the leading actors as well. Nearly everyone Naha talked to gives off a vibe of "This is an amazing project, and it's going to be an amazing movie", but I'm sure that's how Naha wanted to frame it. If one does read between the lines, one does get a sense that those involved in the movie were not too happy with having to film at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, Mexico. (I don't think the Mexico City Chamber of Commerce was excited about this book.)

David Lynch comes off here as calm and measured, despite the fact that he was writing and directing a massive and highly complicated project. Apparently Lynch won't even discuss DUNE now, but back then he seemed excited about it--at the end of the book he mentions his plans to write and direct DUNE sequels (which of course never came to pass).

The biggest and most welcome surprise in the book is how much Freddie Francis factors into it. Francis is well known for the many British Horror films he directed for companies such as Hammer and Amicus, but that aspect of his career is not delved into here. Instead the reader gets a insightful portrait of Francis as cinematographer. Francis explains to Naha how he believes the cinematographer must do his or her best to bring the director's vision to the screen. He is shown as a confidant and mentor to David Lynch, and someone who has a very dry and knowing sense of humor (Francis seemed bemused at all the various complications involved in the making of DUNE). Francis even stayed in Mexico to take part in the lengthy post-production of special effects, probably due to his loyalty to Lynch.

THE MAKING OF DUNE is definitely skewed toward a positive account of the film's production, but it does present how difficult the shoot was, and how much time, money, and effort was put into it. The movie may have been considered a failure when it was first released, but it wasn't for lack of trying. What really would have been interesting was if Naha had written a book a year later called THE AFTERMATH OF DUNE, detailing how all involved felt about the movie's reception and its final edit. The tone of that book would have been very, very different.

Denis Villeneuve is working on another film adaptation of DUNE, this one scheduled to be released sometime in 2020. Who knows how that one will turn out...but it may cause the David Lynch version to get some attention. I doubt that the 1984 DUNE will ever wind up being looked upon as a classic, but I think it has more positive attributes than many think.

This, however, is not a review of the 1984 DUNE, it's a review of the book on the making of the movie. (If you want me to discuss the actual film in a blog post, let me know through social media.) THE MAKING OF DUNE was obviously published to help sell the film, but it's still an fair and thorough look at what went on during the production. It also reminded me of the days when one went to the local bookstore to find out about what was going on in Geek Culture instead of just clicking on the internet.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB On Blu-ray From Shout Factory

Yet another Hammer Region A Blu-ray release from Shout Factory--this time it's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB. This 1971 film is best known for what happened during the making of it.

Peter Cushing was cast in the role of Professor Fuchs in the movie, but he had barely started working on it when his wife became gravely ill and passed away. Cushing was replaced by Andrew Keir, but a few weeks later director Seth Holt died, and Hammer executive Michael Carreras replaced him. The result is a understandably disjointed affair, but it comes off better than one would think.

Christopher Wicking wrote the script for BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, and the movie has his usual complicated story structure. The film is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1903 novel THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS, but it is surprisingly set in contemporary times. The story details how the members of an Egyptian expedition, lead by Professor Fuchs (Andrew Keir), discover the tomb of Queen Tera, an infamous sorceress. The moment Tera is discovered, the wife of the professor dies in childbirth. The professor's daughter, Margaret (Valerie Leon), is approaching her 21st birthday, and one of the members of the expedition, Corbeck (James Villiers), wants to use the beautiful woman in an attempt to resurrect Tera. Will Margaret be able to avoid the overriding influence of Tera upon her--or she is nothing more than a reincarnation of the Egyptian witch?

I first saw BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB way back in the 1980s on the "Son of Svengoolie" program. I'm sure it was heavily edited, and I found it too confusing. I haven't viewed it as many times as most of the other Hammer thrillers--this Blu-ray is actually the first time I've owned it on home video. Even in its uncut state BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB is confusing, but like other movies scripted by Christopher Wicking, one appreciates it more on multiple viewings. Valerie Leon looks stupendous in the lead role (especially in HD), and she brings a striking presence. Leon was dubbed, but I think this effect actually adds to her otherworldly quality. Why Hammer never used her again is beyond me. Andrew Keir does very well considering he took the role with almost no preparation, and the movie is enlivened by three very eccentric English character actors: James Villiers, George Coulouris, and Aubrey Morris (I'm surprised they didn't put Freddie Jones in this as well).

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB does not have a mummy in it--but I think that's one of the reasons the movie winds up working. It defies the expectations one has from the title. There's plenty of ambiguity in the story, particularly the climax. One never knows exactly what the characters are going to do, or which of them can be trusted. It's also quite bloody, with numerous ripped-out throats--one has to wonder how it got a PG rating in the U.S. If Peter Cushing had been able to star in the film, and Seth Holt had been able to complete it as director, it might now be remembered as one of the better Hammer productions from the early 1970s.

Shout Factory once again provides a fine-looking print, presented uncut in 1.66:1 & 1.85:1 aspect ratios. There's two new (and very short) interviews with a couple of men who worked on the film: Tony Dawe and Neil Binney. There's older interviews with Christopher Wicking and Valerie Leon, and a recent look at the production of the film. A new audio commentary is included by Steve Haberman, and he efficiently discusses the various trials and travails that affected the making of the film. There's also a trailer, and TV and radio spots which advertised the movie being on a double-bill with Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER (this double feature was rated PG!). Valerie Leon fans will be happy to know that there's a still gallery which features several glamour shots of her.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

FEAR IN THE NIGHT On Blu-ray From Shout Factory

It's another Region A Hammer release from Shout Factory--this time it's the 1972 psychological thriller FEAR IN THE NIGHT.

In the early 1960s Jimmy Sangster wrote a number of twist-filled contemporary-set shockers that were made by Hammer and influenced by the French film LES DIABOLIQUES. Two of these films, TASTE OF FEAR and PARANOIAC, are quite good. In the early 1970s, after Sangster had directed HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE for Hammer, he went back to a story called THE CLAW that had been written a decade earlier. Sangster produced, directed, and co-wrote what became known as FEAR IN THE NIGHT, the last of Hammer's psychological thrillers.

In his audio commentary on this disc, Troy Howarth states that, as a writer, Jimmy Sangster was an "economizer". Essentially, that means that Sangster knew how to write scripts that made the most out of the modest budgets favored by Hammer. FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a perfect example of this. There's only four main characters in the film, and there's only one major location. There's no major special effects, or action sequences. The movie overall is quite simple.

Judy Geeson plays Peggy, a 22 year-old newlywed who is moving into a cottage located on the grounds of the private school her husband Robert (Ralph Bates) works at. Peggy is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and she's convinced that she's been attacked by a person with an artificial arm. Peggy is told by her husband that the school is empty due to a term break. While wandering the grounds Peggy comes across the mysterious headmaster (Peter Cushing), and later, his arrogant wife (Joan Collins). The headmaster has--you guessed it--an artificial arm, and Peggy winds up confronting the man with a shotgun...but the young woman has no idea what trouble lies in store for her.

I'm not going to give away the climatic twists in FEAR IN THE NIGHT, but they're very easy to figure out, especially if you've seen most of the other Hammer psychological thrillers. There really isn't much to the main plot--the script could have easily been made as an hour-long TV episode. Judy Geeson spends a lot of time wandering around empty corridors and exploring vacant rooms. Thankfully Geeson is appealing enough to where the viewer is interested in what happens to her. Peggy is a vulnerable and insecure character, but Geeson (an underrated actress) is able to gain sympathy without appearing weak. Ralph Bates seems more suited to play a contemporary person than one of his Gothic Hammer roles, and Joan Collins plays the type of role one expects Joan Collins to play.

Peter Cushing has what is really a guest part (one hears his voice more than actually sees him), but he's still able to make a very great impression out of having very little to do. (When I met Judy Geeson a couple years ago at a convention, she went out of her way to tell me how much she adored Peter Cushing.)

FEAR IN THE NIGHT is a particularly tame film when one compares it to other low-budget British horror movies made during the same period. It's not a great movie, and it's very predictable, but I think its old-fashioned attitude allows it to hold up well when looked at today. Jimmy Sangster was a much better writer than a director, but as a filmmaker he seems a lot more comfortable here than he did with HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN and LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. It's an okay little movie, and it certainly doesn't look low-budget, due to Arthur Grant's efficient cinematography.

Shout Factory presents FEAR IN THE NIGHT in two different aspect ratios--1.66:1 and 1.85:1. The print used on this disc is a fine-looking one, with vibrant color.

The extras feature an interview with Jimmy Sangster from the 1990s (it's the same one that is also presented on Shout Factory's HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN Blu-ray). There's also a short program in which Hammer experts such as Jonathan Rigby discuss the movie.

There's a brand new commentary with Troy Howarth, and it is an outstanding one. Howarth analyses, among other things, Jimmy Sangster's career, the entire series of the Hammer psychological thrillers, and Peter Cushing's film output after the death of the actor's wife. An older commentary with Sangster and Marcus Hearn is also included.

One more thing I have to mention, and this is for those folks who have never seen the movie and might be interested in purchasing this disc...the inside of the disc cover gives away the main plot twist!!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


THE UNDEAD (1957) is almost impossible to categorize. It's a wild mixture of reincarnation, time travel, medieval witchcraft, devil worship, and post-WWII science-fiction. The movie was produced and directed by the legendary Roger Corman, and released by American-International Pictures.

Nearly every film Roger Corman worked on automatically gets a cult status attached to it. THE UNDEAD isn't as renowned as Corman's other directorial efforts from this period, probably due to its rarity--I don't believe it has been officially released on home video. It's no classic, but it's definitely not boring--and that's why Corman's ultra-low budget films before his Poe period still hold up today.

A creepy scientist named Quintus (Val Dufour) picks out a streetwalker named Diana Love (Pamela Duncan) to take part in an experiment. Quintus wants to hypnotize the woman and find out if he can cause her to regress to a past life in another time period. The experiment is a success--Diana (along with the audience) is transported to the Middle Ages, supposedly in France, where she is now Helene, a maiden scheduled to be executed for being a witch. Helene tries to avoid her fate with the help of her lover Pendragon (Richard Garland). A real witch, Livia (Allison Hayes), tries to disrupt the couple's plans, since she desires Pendragon for herself. Back in the modern world, where Diana is still in a trance, Quintus comes to the conclusion that if Helene is saved from execution, all her future lives will be altered, and world history as well. Quintus somehow hooks himself up to Diana's brainwaves and enters her past Middle Age existence. Helene finds out she must make a hard choice on whether to live in the present or the future, while Quintus discovers his experiments have worked all too well.

The above plot summary doesn't begin to explain the bizarre elements one finds in THE UNDEAD. It doesn't mention that Satan himself, as played by Richard Devon, makes an appearance--he even addresses the viewer at the beginning of the film. Once the story shifts to the Middle Ages, all the characters speak in a pseudo-Shakespearean dialect, courtesy of the screenplay by Charles Griffith and Mark Hanna. Such dialogue doth fall heavy from thy performer's lips, and spending about an hour listening to it is about as much of a chore as it must have been to recite it. Charles Griffith (who wrote the original THE LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS) was a master of dark humor, so I assume that the florid archaic verse might have been meant to be sarcastic.

Other goofy features in THE UNDEAD include a rhyming gravedigger (Mel Welles) and a "good" witch (Dorothy Neumann) who tries to help out Helene. Corman regular Bruno Ve Sota plays a tavern keeper, and the iconic Dick Miller, here billed as "Richard", plays a leper who is cured of his illness after signing his soul away to Satan.

Another cult icon, the sultry Allison Hayes, walks away with the film in the showy role of Livia. The future 50 foot woman gets a great camera pan from her feet all the way to her face, showing that she's much better built than all the sets in the movie combined. Hayes' Livia has the ability to turn into various animals, and she's accompanied by a midget familiar played by Billy Barty. Livia and her Imp are far more interesting than anyone else in the cast--one wonders why the slinky witch would have any desire for the underwhelming Pendragon as played by Richard Garland. Livia is a character that might have been played by Barbara Steele if Corman had made this film five years or so later.

Hayes stands out even more when compared to Pamela Duncan, who doesn't register strongly enough as either Diana or Helene. (Other veteran Corman actresses such as Susan Cabot and Beverly Garland would have been much more suitable.)

Billy Barty and Allison Hayes in THE UNDEAD

Five years or so later, Roger Corman was right in the thick of his period of making films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. One could say that THE UNDEAD marked Corman's first foray into Gothic territory. It must be said that the cut-rate THE UNDEAD makes the Corman Poe pictures look like multi-million dollar productions. Most of the atmosphere in THE UNDEAD is made up of lots of stage fog and fake shrubbery. (Corman has stated in interviews that most of the movie was filmed in a refurbished supermarket.) The black & white photography helps things a bit (I think the movie would have looked even cheaper if it had been made in color). There's no gore, but there's plenty of beheadings, and there's a sequence where Helene hides in a coffin underneath a corpse. Corman tries to spice up a somewhat desultory Black Mass by having Satan conjure up a trio of Vampira lookalikes, who proceed to perform a short bump and grind dance routine.

The most notable thing about THE UNDEAD (other than Allison Hayes), is the twist ending, which seems to me more fantasy than science fiction. The entire movie can be placed in all sorts of genres. All the disparate elements that make up THE UNDEAD may mix together uneasily at times, but the movie isn't boring. In the Roger Corman films before his Poe period, something was always happening in them, no matter how silly or outrageous that something might have been. What makes the work of Roger Corman stand out from other ultra-low budget drive-in films from this period is that his films move, and they are memorable.

Monday, September 9, 2019


A couple days ago TCM aired the 1966 Euro Western RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL, and I was able to watch it last night through an Xfinity app. The original Italian title of the film is JOHNNY ORO. It was released in American by MGM and presumably re-titled to reference the original Ringo spaghetti westerns, which this movie has nothing in common with.

RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL will be of interest to film geeks due to its being directed by Sergio Corbucci, one of the most legendary names associated with the Euro Western genre. The film, however, isn't one of Corbucci's best. It has more of a traditional American Western feel, with a sincere, upright sheriff, Apaches on the warpath, and a saloon girl that serves as a kind-of romantic interest for the main hero.

American actor Mark Damon (best known for his role in Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER) stars as the supposed "Ringo", the character known as Johnny Oro in the original version of the film. Ringo is a bounty hunter who works both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. He apparently is obsessed with gold (hence his original moniker). When he claims a reward, he demands gold in return, and his spurs and pistol are made of gold. Much is made of Ringo's unique firearm--one could say that Damon was the Man With the Golden Gun before Christopher Lee. In the movie the gilded weapon does look a bit like a children's toy, but it certainly gets the audience's attention, and from that standpoint it's an effective gimmick.

Mark Damon and his Golden Gun

Damon's costume--black shirt, black pants, black hat--makes him greatly resemble Pernell Roberts' Adam Cartwright from BONANZA (the two actors even look somewhat like each other). The main difference is that Damon has a thin mustache and he constantly flashes a Douglas Fairbanks-like grin. Damon's character is also a Mexican, and there's a hint in the story that this is why no one really trusts him. Other than that, the ancestry of the title character doesn't become a major concern. If this film had been made only a year or so later, the Mexican angle would have been an important plot point.

Damon tries to give Ringo/Johnny Oro some cocky self-assurance, but he's basically a good guy at heart--he's nowhere near as greedy or self-absorbed as most Euro Western protagonists. He helps out the heroic sheriff of a Texas border town, and even befriends the sheriff's young son. His relationship with the saloon girl (played by Valeria Fabrizi) is rather chaste, and the climax reveals that Ringo isn't nearly as money hungry as he's made himself out to be. Ringo is also rather talkative--he has more dialogue here than Lee Van Cleef would recite in about three of four of his Euro Westerns combined.

The main plot of RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL deals with a group of Mexican bandits with the family name of Perez. Most of them are killed by Ringo for the bounties being offered on them, but he leaves the youngest Perez alive, since he's not wanted for anything. The surviving Perez wants revenge on Ringo, so he gathers up an army of bandits and Apache Indians to attack the town where the bounty hunter is in jail, courtesy of the law-abiding sheriff. Usually the main villains in a spaghetti western are made out to be as outlandish or horrid as possible, but the remaining Perez is a young, clean-cut fellow who has no problem in having other men do his dirty work for him (he doesn't even brandish a weapon until the climax). This Perez is played by Franco De Rosa, an actor handsome enough to have played the lead character. This villain is another intriguing example of how this movie goes against the expected Euro Western elements.

Fans of Sergio Corbucci who haven't seen RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL will be surprised by it. It doesn't feature the nihilism and bleakness one expects from Corbucci's work. It also doesn't have several examples of shocking violence (there is a scene where a character gets a tomahawk to the head). There are a number of action sequences, and while they are well-handled, they have a very standard American Western feel to them. (There is a rather explosive climax, however.) The movie certainly isn't boring, but at times it seems to amble along--it doesn't have the narrative drive of other Corbucci films such as DJANGO or THE GREAT SILENCE. The director does try to give the story some visual flair--the print of the film I saw was in widescreen and it looked very good. The music score by Carlo Savina, as expected, is very much influenced by Ennio Morricone. This version of the film was dubbed into English.

Overall, I enjoyed RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL. It doesn't rank among the best spaghetti westerns, or even among the best movies directed by Sergio Corbucci, but it's entertaining enough. Those who are usually turned off by the excesses found in most Euro Westerns might appreciate this movie's more traditional feel.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Have I seen every bizarre old horror/science fiction movie? Certainly not. There's plenty I haven't gotten around to, or haven't had the time--or the inclination--to view. But yesterday I did take the opportunity to watch one of the most infamous films ever made--TROG, the 1970 British production that so happens to be the last theatrical feature the legendary Joan Crawford appeared in.

TROG developed originally from exploitation maven Tony Tenser, who passed it on to another exploitation maven, Herman Cohen. Among those who worked on the script were Hammer veterans Peter Bryan and John Gilling, and the director was Freddie Francis, who by this time had made several horror and science fiction films in England. (For more information on the background of the film, I suggest searching out LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #31, which has a thorough article on the subject.)

The real reason Freddie Francis agreed to direct was the chance to work with Joan Crawford. The actress may have been at the end of her career, but she was still considered a Hollywood legend, and she had already starred for Herman Cohen in his wacky circus thriller BERSERK! If Crawford felt embarrassed about co-starring with a guy in an ape mask, she certainly didn't show it...the movie is bad, but it would have been totally unwatchable without her.

TROG opens with footage--way too much footage--of three young men exploring a cave somewhere in the English countryside. Finally one of them stumbles upon a vicious creature, and the poor guy is beaten to death. The man with him goes into shock, and the other explorer, Malcolm, decides to go to a local scientific institute instead of the police. The institute is run by a famous anthropologist, Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). Brockton is so intrigued by Malcolm's account of events that she decides to try and find the creature, getting the attention of the police and media. The creature comes out to the surface, right in the middle of a live TV broadcast. Brockton channels Annie Oakley and shoots it with a hypo gun, then takes it back to her institute for study. She calls the being "Trog" (after troglodyte) and attempts to communicate with it. Brockton actually has success in coming to a sort of understanding with Trog, but a very, very angry local citizen named Murdock (Michael Gough) is convinced the creature is a menace that must be destroyed. Murdock sets Trog loose, and gets killed by it in the process. After killing some people in a local village, Trog comes upon a playground and makes off with a little girl. He goes back to his cave, where Brockton tracks him down and convinces him to let the little girl go. Brockton pleads with the local authorities to spare Trog's life, but the cave man is killed by soldiers.

As with most bizarre films, a plot summary does not do TROG justice. One has to take into account Trog himself. The creature looks as if someone attached an ape's head to a pot-bellied white guy's body (albeit a white guy dressed like a caveman). The final result reminds one of somebody's uncle dressed for Halloween instead of a relic from a prehistoric era. A wrestler named Joe Cornelius plays Trog, and while he's underwhelming in the role, it has to be said that even Lon Chaney couldn't have made the creature work if he had to wear such an outfit.

The story tries to make the viewer feel sympathetic toward Trog, but it doesn't help that the first time we see him he's killing someone. Apparently we're supposed to take the side of Dr. Brockton when she goes on and on about how Trog should be studied and nurtured. Brockton reaches Trog through the use of children's toys, including dolls and a rubber ball. These scenes are played absolutely straight, which makes them appear even more campier than if that was the intention all along. When Trog runs off with the little girl in the climax, one assumes that he thinks that she is a little doll, but this isn't really developed enough. Dr. Brockton has a cute, blonde daughter who wears a miniskirt--I thought she would be the one to get carried off by Trog, but apparently he hadn't reached cave puberty yet. Brockton lavishes far more attention on Trog than she does her daughter in the film, and at times she gives him the same loving glance she would bestow upon the likes of Clark Gable in the 1930s. At other times Brockton angrily scolds Trog as if he were a naughty schoolboy. Instead of a dedicated scientist Brockton comes off as an elderly woman wanting to remember her child-rearing days.

I do have to give credit to Joan Crawford here. No matter how silly the situations in TROG may be, or what she may have to do, she gives a totally committed performance. She doesn't play it as a joke, or walk through it....she gives 100% at all times. This may have been her last film, but she goes down fighting. An actress of lesser stature would have been overwhelmed by all the goofiness.

I also have to give credit to Michael Gough, who once again makes a mediocre movie watchable by his over-the-top manner. Gough enlivened every Herman Cohen production he appeared in, and his presence here is most welcome, even though we never learn why his character Murdock hates Trog so much. Does he have a thing against cavemen in general?? Did Fred Flintstone run off with his wife?? Whatever it is, Gough looks upon Trog as if he's the Devil himself. If Gough had been, say, the father of the young man killed by Trog at the start of the story, it would make sense...but his all-consuming hatred of the creature, though enjoyable, is puzzling. There's not many of the familiar character actors one usually sees in a British horror of this period, except for Thorley Walters, who has a small role as a magistrate that wastes his abilities. You'd think someone on the production would have been smart enough to take advantage of Walters' eccentric personality and have him interact with Trog in some way. American B movie actor Robert Hutton (who worked with Freddie Francis on THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and TORTURE GARDEN) plays a scientist who helps Brockton experiment on Trog.

It's those experiments that give the film its highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view). Brockton and a group of scientists place what looks like a cable splitter inside Trog's chest, and this somehow enables him to "speak" (what comes out of his mouth sounds to me like a whiny moan). Brockton then hooks some electrodes up to Trog's head (see picture above) and shows him various slides of dinosaur skeletons. This causes Trog to have a flashback (which we the audience see) of prehistoric creatures battling one another--it's actually stock footage taken from THE ANIMAL WORLD. You'd think about 20 seconds of this stuff would suffice in giving the viewer the general idea, but it goes on way longer than that. I couldn't help be reminded of Malcolm McDowell's "treatment" in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE while watching this sequence.

There's really not as many schlock moments in TROG as one might think. And maybe that's the film's biggest problem. To me, the worst thing a movie can be is boring, and like most Herman Cohen productions, there's way too many scenes of characters standing around on sets and arguing with one another. (By the way, the interiors for TROG were filmed at Bray Studios, the then former home of Hammer Films...but that venerable location doesn't look as atmospheric when Bernard Robinson isn't doing the production design.) By this time Freddie Francis was an old hand at making low-budget genre films, and the movie is competently made--but one can tell he wasn't all that excited about it. Take away Crawford and Gough, and the movie would have no spark at all. I've said this before about the average Herman Cohen production--they're more fun to discuss than they are to watch.

Yes, TROG is bad...but it's not stupendously bad. It's not even bad enough to be perversely entertaining.

Sunday, September 1, 2019


L'ARGENT is a 1928 French silent film that I had no knowledge of until I learned earlier this year that it was going to be released on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley. What caught my attention was finding out that the movie starred Brigitte Helm. I've been fascinated by the German actress since I first saw her in Fritz Lang's legendary METROPOLIS. Except for that film there's very little of Helm's work available on home video in America.

L'ARGENT is certainly a major showcase for Helm, but it's also an outstanding silent era epic, with a running time of two and a half hours. Director Marcel L'Herbier spent a large amount of money on the project, which is fitting because the story, based on a novel by Emile Zola, is about greed and the manipulation of people and events for financial gain.

Set in contemporary times, the main character of the tale is Nicolas Saccard (Pierre Alcover), a financier who is director of a powerful bank. As a result of a bad judgment, he almost ruins the institution he is in charge of. Saccard schemes to regain his stature and get back at his financial rival, Gunderman (Alfred Abel), by backing a famous aviator named Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor). Hamelin will attempt to fly across the Atlantic to French Guiana, where he, on behalf of Saccard, plans to take advantage of oil deposits there. The journey is successful, but Saccard's hunger for wealth continues to grow, along with his passion for Jacques' young wife, Line (Marie Glory). Complicating matters is Saccard's former mistress, the predatory Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm).

Even though it was made 90 years ago, L'ARGENT still feels very fresh when looked at today. The various financial complications set into motion by the main characters are very reminiscent of what is going on now, with major corporations affecting the lives of millions. One of the subtitles on the Flicker Alley Blu-ray actually says "Fake news". L'ARGENT was made before the stock market crash of 1929, yet it anticipates it, and makes a viewer realize how economies can rise and fall due to the whims of a few people.

Director L'Herbier provides plenty of spectacle to the story, with hundreds of extras and vast, impressive settings. Cinematographer Jules Kruger (who worked on Abel Gance's NAPOLEON) presents all sorts of inventive camera movements, along with several breathtaking shot compositions. The result is that L'ARGENT is a visual feast, ranking right alongside more well-known productions from the silent period.

For all the cinematic flair, L'Herbier still makes the human element important. The portly Pierre Alcover is the ultimate manifestation of a money-making fat cat (if this story had been made in America a few years later, Edward Arnold would have been perfect for the role). It is to Alcover's credit, however, that Nicholas Saccard doesn't turn out to be a total ogre. Henry Victor is the good guy of the movie as the heroic aviator. Film buffs who watch L'ARGENT will be shocked to know that the handsome leading man here would later play the dopey strong man in Tod Browning's FREAKS! Marie Glory projects a sense of innocence as the aviator's wife, but even her character succumbs to the power of money (her bad debts put her in thrall to Saccard). I felt that Glory had a bit of a resemblance to Myrna Loy.

Brigitte Helm doesn't have as many scenes as Marie Glory, but she winds up stealing the film nonetheless. Helm's Baroness Sandorf (there's a striking character name for you) is slinky and seductive, constantly putting herself into whatever situation that will allow her to continue a luxurious lifestyle. Helm wears about fifteen different costumes, each one more stupendous than the last, and she totally dominates whatever scene she's in. If you are a fan of METROPOLIS and you're pining to see more of Brigitte Helm, L'ARGENT will not disappoint you. Helm even gets to have a reunion with the actor who played the Master of Metropolis by sharing a couple scenes with Alfred Abel.

The print of L'ARGENT used on the Flicker Alley Blu-ray was excellent, showcasing all sorts of detail in the production design and the costumes. (This blog post is not meant to be a review of the actual Blu-ray; it's the movie that I'm focusing on here, since I had never seen it before.)

One of the most enchanting joys of being a film geek is making discoveries about titles that one knows next to nothing about. L'ARGENT is one of those pleasant discoveries. Brigitte Helm was definitely the reason I bought this disc...but thankfully the movie is worthy in its own right, a large scale silent blockbuster that features one impressive sequence after another. It is a film that deserves more attention, and more viewership.