Tuesday, November 26, 2019
I haven't seen every movie made by Hammer Films. There's still plenty of titles that have eluded me, including most of the company's output before they produced THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I was able to partake in a personal Hammer debut last night, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel showed HYSTERIA, a 1965 film written & produced by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Freddie Francis.
HYSTERIA is part of a mini-series of black & white psychological thrillers, usually written by Sangster and directed by Francis, that were made at Hammer in the early 1960s. Other titles in the group include TASTE OF FEAR, PARANOIAC, MANIAC, and NIGHTMARE. The movies were influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO and Clouzot's DIABOLIQUE.
All the Hammer psychological thrillers share the same basic plot device--and if I revealed this plot device, I'd give away the twists for all the people who haven't seen these movies. (So I won't).
I own several books & magazines on Hammer Films, and I don't think I've read a positive review of HYSTERIA in any of them. It's not a bad film, but there's nothing in it that makes it extraordinary--especially if you've seen the other Hammer psychological thrillers (which are much better).
Robert Webber plays an American who is in London recuperating from a car crash. He is suffering from amnesia (the character is referred to as "Chris Smith"). Upon checking out of the hospital, Smith finds out his bills have been paid, and he's been set up in a luxury suite in a large apartment building. Smith's only clue to his past is a torn photo of a fashionable woman (whenever there's a man suffering from amnesia in a movie or a TV show, there's always a mysterious beautiful woman who holds the key to what is going on). Smith tries to track her down, only to be told that she's dead. But he keeps seeing her, and he keeps hearing strange voices while in his apartment--even though the rest of the building is supposedly empty. Of course, there's plenty of things going on that one doesn't expect (unless you've watched and read a lot of mysteries).
HYSTERIA doesn't have the typical Hammer cast. Robert Webber is more of a character actor than a leading man type. I've seen him in a lot of movies and TV shows from the 60s and 70s, and he almost always played a bad guy. He even has that type of vibe here, especially when he starts to "remember" and these thoughts are dramatized to the viewer--they show that Smith is something of a con man. An actress named Lelia Goldoni (who I am not familiar with) plays the "mystery woman", and the fine British character actor Maurice Denham steals the film as an eccentric private investigator who is hired by Smith. English Gothic fans will notice among the supporting cast Peter Woodthorpe (THE SKULL), Sue Lloyd (CORRUPTION), Jennifer Jayne (DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS), and, the man who played the Frankenstein Monster in the Freddie Francis-directed THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, Kiwi Kingston. (I don't wish to be mean, but he doesn't look so good without makeup either.)
What makes HYSTERIA a lesser Hammer entry is that it has a 60 minute plot that is stretched out to about 90 minutes. There's much footage of Robert Webber wandering around, looking puzzled. The scenes of Smith's "past" might be to make the audience doubt the man's intentions, but they also seem to exist to pad the story. Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox give the film a crisp, efficient look, but they're not able to get much suspense out of the script. The best idea in the movie is Smith living all by himself in a modern high-rise apartment complex. Personally I find that more creepy than having to stay in a lonely old house--but the film never really takes advantage of it (I think the main reason for Smith's living arrangements was to keep the budget down). There's also an attempt at a PSYCHO-like shower scene, but it's very underwhelming.
If you are familiar with this type of material HYSTERIA will hold no surprises for you. The main twist is easy to anticipate (at least it was for me). There's another twist at the end that should cause a viewer to rethink what they have just watched, but it just seems tacked on. A more interesting leading man might have helped (Oliver Reed, maybe?). This is probably the least of all of Hammer's psychological thrillers--it gets nowhere near the emotional level of its title.
Saturday, November 23, 2019
WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY is the American name for a 1961 Italian/Austrian production originally titled LYCANTHROPUS. The Euro horror has been given a special Blu-ray release courtesy of Severin Films.
WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY may be a silly title, but it's a memorable one, and it has enabled the film to have a long shelf life. Actually the movie isn't near as lurid as the title makes one expect (if it had been made about ten years later it certainly would have been far more explicit).
The film feels more like a German krimi thriller than a straight horror tale. Like most krimis, it is in black & white, and it's set in contemporary England (even though none of the cast or the locations look remotely English). The story contains murder mystery, science-fiction, and Gothic elements.
A English reformatory (not dormitory) for young girls is beset by a series of gruesome murders. The killings seem to have been perpetrated by a wolf--or was it a werewolf? There's plenty of suspects, all with secrets to hide--the handsome new teacher (Carl Schell), the suave headmaster (Curt Lowens), and the creepy caretaker (Luciano Pigozzi, aka Alan Collins, the "Italian Peter Lorre").
There's also a bevy of young beauties on display, even though the movie doesn't take full advantage of this. The lead female, played by Barbara Lass, takes it upon herself to find out what is going on, which makes her the prime potential victim.
The film's werewolf sports a rather effective makeup, and the increased visual detail on this Blu-ray allows one to get a greater appreciation of it. Director Paolo Heusch (billed as "Richard Benson") presents plenty of atmospheric nighttime sequences, and the original story comes from Eurocult veteran Ernesto Gastaldi.
On the back of this disc cover it is claimed that this transfer of the movie comes from a 2K scan of elements discovered in a Rome lab vault. It is a very good transfer, in anamorphic 1.66:1 screen ratio, and it's much better than the several public domain and YouTube versions of the movie. Two soundtracks are provided: English and Italian (with English subtitles). For some reason the Italian track has a much bolder sound than the English one. The uncut version of the film is presented on this disc, under the title LYCNATHROPUS, with Italian main credits.
Severin has loaded this release with extras, including the U.S. main titles, which includes a snippet of the novelty song "The Ghoul In School". American and Italian trailers are also here, along with a short interview with writer Ernesto Gastaldi, who discusses his work on the story.
This release comes with a CD that contains 30 minutes of the film's original soundtrack music by composer Armando Trovajoli. The spooky score is the perfect thing to play at your next EuroGothic themed party.
The Blu-ray has an audio commentary which was actually recorded for an earlier Retromedia DVD of the film. It features David del Valle with actor Curt Lowens. Lowens enthusiastically discusses his memories of working on the picture, while del Valle keeps wanting to discuss just about everything else. There's also a booklet which reproduces a vintage gallery of stills captioned with lame jokes, in a FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND-style manner. The booklet contains a track listing for the soundtrack CD.
It's nice that Severin decided to give the deluxe treatment to a title that has been the subject of way too many mediocre presentations. The soundtrack CD in particular is a quality bonus. WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY isn't on the Mario Bava level, but's it's a good late-night monster flick.
Thursday, November 21, 2019
It's Pre-Code time again with the 1932 Warner Bros. feature BIG CITY BLUES. The film stars Joan Blondell as a--you guessed it--struggling chorus girl, and it has elements of other Pre-Codes the actress starred in such as UNION DEPOT and CENTRAL PARK.
Bud Reeves (Eric Linden) is a callow young man from Indiana who decides to go to New York City to change his life. Upon arrival in the Big Apple he meets up with his cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett), a fast-talking con man. Gibby proceeds to hit Bud up for various "loans", and he introduces him to a couple of chorus girls (Joan Blondell and Inez Courtney). Bud becomes immediately smitten with Blondell's character, who is named Vida (can you blame him?). Gibby cajoles Bud into holding a party in the young man's hotel room. The gathering is fueled by bootleg hooch, and things start getting out of hand when two of the guests (played by Humphrey Bogart and Lyle Talbot, of all people) begin to fight each other over a young lady. The lady in question winds up getting killed as a result of the brawl, and all the party goers--including Vida--scram from the room, leaving Bud on his own. The confused boy roams the city, trying to figure out what to do. He winds up reunited with Vida, and he's also the fortunate recipient of one of those contrived classic movie climaxes.
A striking (though deceptive) poster for BIG CITY BLUES
Even though Joan Blondell gets first billing in BIG CITY BLUES, Eric Linden as Bud gets the majority of the screen time. Unfortunately the character of Bud is so naive it's hard to have much sympathy for him. He's a perfect candidate for the Looney Toons gag where someone turns into a giant lollipop with a wrapper marked SUCKER. It's seems hard to believe that Vida, one of those sassy dames with a heart of gold, would fall for the poor sap, but it is to Blondell's credit that she makes it work.
Warner Bros. Pre-Codes were always filled with unique supporting players, and BIG CITY BLUES is no exception. Along with the enthusiastic Walter Catlett, there's Inez Courtney, Guy Kibbee, and Ned Sparks. During a nightclub sequence African-American actor Clarence Muse (WHITE ZOMBIE, INVISIBLE GHOST) gets to sing. Despite the fact that the entire plot hinges on the fight between their two characters, Humphrey Bogart (in one of his earliest film roles) and Lyle Talbot do not even get billing in the credits. Bogart has little screen time, but he's already displaying a cynical persona.
BIG CITY BLUES is only about an hour long, and director Mervyn LeRoy (who cranked out dozens of Warner movies) keeps thing hopping. There really isn't much to the movie--boy goes to the big city, gets into trouble, goes back home sadder but supposedly wiser. It's not a great Pre-Code, but it does have that classic Warner Bros. vibe.
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
I have to admit that when I first heard about the 2019 film version of MIDWAY, I had serious doubts. Roland Emmerich as the director? Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz? It turns out that the movie is actually a quite accurate and well done interpretation of the events surrounding one of the greatest naval battles of the 20th Century.
This movie's scope goes far beyond the Battle of Midway, which took place in early June, 1942. The script takes into account Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo, and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese side of events is also dramatized in a fair manner, with emphasis on Admiral Yamamoto.
On the American side a number of real military heroes are ably portrayed by an ensemble cast. If there is a leading character it is fighter pilot Dick Best, played by Ed Skrein. The aforementioned Harrelson winds up being effective as Nimitz, with Dennis Quaid as Admiral Halsey and Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle. The legendary film director John Ford is even characterized (Ford was on Midway Island when the Japanese attacked, and he was wounded while filming what was going on).
The Battle of Midway is not an easy one to recreate on screen, since the outcome of the entire clash was the result of timing. Emmerich, writer Wes Tooke, and editor Adam Wolfe manage to give the audience enough information so they can understand what is going on, while at the same time present it in a exciting manner that is easy to follow. A huge amount of CGI is used in the battle scenes, which in this day and age is to be expected. I think for the most part the CGI here worked, but there were a few times when it did feel like watching a video game.
There are some Hollywood-style moments, but they are very few, and there's nothing that I would say pulls you out of movie's time frame. (By the way, this movie has very little in common with the 1976 MIDWAY.) There is also no mythologizing the characters--they are presented as human beings.
The 2019 MIDWAY is fine WWII film with good intentions. I think it can be appreciated by history buffs and those who are not experts on the conflict.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Recently my great friend Joshua Kennedy mentioned to me that next year will be the 10th anniversary of his first film to receive an official home video release, ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE. I told him that this means the "Gooey Films Universe" is now a decade old (Gooey Films being the chosen name of his production company).
What better way to celebrate the GFU than to pick my personal favorite Gooey Films performances? One of Josh's strengths is that he draws and surrounds himself with many uniquely talented individuals. These people have brightened and enlivened Josh's fantastic visions--and it doesn't matter whether they are "official" actors or not.
I realize that due to Josh's prodigious output, this list will more than likely be outdated in a few months. The GFU, after all, is still only in the infancy stage. All these performances can be found on home video (mostly through Alpha Video) or YouTube, and I highly recommend that readers seek them out.
Haley Zega as Elaine in THE NIGHT OF THE MEDUSA
I consider THE NIGHT OF THE MEDUSA Josh's best overall film (at least up till now), and Zega gives what I think is the best overall GFU performance. You can't help but feel for her as Elaine, an earnest young woman who comes to New York City as a student. Zega's natural likability make the tragedies that befall her character that much more powerful.
Bessie Nellis as Dr. Watson in THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
When Josh told me he was going to have a female Watson in his Sherlock Holmes story, I thought he was being too high concept--but, as usual, he knew exactly what he was doing. Nellis brings dry humor and quirky attitude to what is often a flat character.
Xander Pretorius as Count Dracula in DRACULA A.D. 2015
Josh told me that he discovered Xander after seeing him walking down a hallway at Pace University. Pretorius brought plenty of onscreen charisma and gravitas as the Count.
Tomi Heady as Nancy in THE VESUVIUS XPERIMENT
This performance is a personal favorite of Josh's. As the perplexed wife of the title experiment, Heady brings realism and depth to the type of role that is usually a thankless one in similar low-budget science-fiction features.
Gus Kennedy as Gregorios in THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Gus is Josh's father, but he's also a talented man in his own right. The blind Gregorios is the gentle and wise mentor to the hero Theseus, and Gus steals the film (not easy to do when you're sharing the screen with stop-motion animated monsters). The sequence where Gregorios relates a parable about the love affair between the sun and the moon is the best scene that Josh has ever written, and Gus performs it beautifully.
Veronica Carlson as Anna Banning in HOUSE OF THE GORGON
HOUSE OF THE GORGON is Josh's most star-studded film yet, with such English Gothic icons as Carlson, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, and Christopher Neame. They are all great, but Veronica in particular gets a chance to shine as Mrs. Banning, the mother of the lead female character. Anna Banning could have easily wound up as just a silly old woman, but Carlson gives her a multi-faceted personality, and she contributes several expertly timed line readings.
Joshua Kennedy as Minos in THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Yes, the Orson Welles of Edinburg himself appears on this list (and trust me, he would rather not be on it). All of Josh's various appearances in the GFU are entertaining, but I like his portrayal of the evil King Minos most of all. Why? Because he totally lets it rip in this one, going all out to be as villainous as possible in the classic storybook tradition.
Mention must be made of several other important members of the Gooey Films Stock Company, such as Carmen Vienhage, Traci Thomas, Kat Kennedy, Marco Munoz, and Jaime Trevino.
Sunday, November 10, 2019
I discovered this 2016 documentary on Tubi. It details one man's quixotic attempt to recover a large film set that was built--and supposedly buried--on the central coast of California.
The writer, producer, and director of THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE, Peter Brosnan, had heard a story in the early 1980s about the making of the silent version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. The story goes that the imposing set built for the film under director Cecil B. DeMille's orders had been buried underneath the California sand dunes upon which it was erected. Brosnan was so intrigued by the tale that he decided to go to the actual location (near Guadalupe, CA), attempt to dig up the remains of the set, and make a documentary about it.
What seemed like a simple concept turned out to be a frustrating endeavor that went on for thirty years. Every time it seemed that Brosnan had managed to get all the details set so the recovery could begin, one thing or another--mostly local bureaucratic red tape--would shut the process down. Brosnan covers all of this in the film, and one can't help when watching this why the man just didn't throw up his hands and forget about the whole thing--or get a bunch of people with shovels together in the middle of the night and go ahead on his own.
Interspersed with Brosnan's efforts is some production history on both the silent and the sound versions of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, along with a mini-biography of Cecil B. DeMille. When Brosnan started this project in the 1980s, he was able to interview a number of folks who had worked alongside DeMille, and who had actually been on the silent version's Guadalupe set. Clips from these talks are in the documentary.
THE LOST CITY OF CECIL B. DEMILLE is a fascinating story, especially for film buffs. The idea that a vast set, built for a silent movie epic, lies buried and is awaiting full discovery, can't help but fire up one's imagination. But one also develops a sense of annoyance while watching this film, due to the head scratching decisions of a few small-time government officials who seemed to have something personal against Brosnan and his project. The movie also reminds us what real Hollywood spectacle was--and how creative, talented men like Cecil B. DeMille were determined to put the most wondrous things they possibly could on the screen.
Saturday, November 9, 2019
While watching the Blu-ray of THE HUMAN MONSTER, a realization popped in my head. In that movie Bela Lugosi is assisted in his villainous activities by a disfigured hulking blind man played by Wilfred Walter. It occurred to me that throughout his screen career Lugosi had many unique "helpers" who didn't wind up helping very much.
Bela's cinematic personal assistants were not exactly model employees. They usually had various mental and physical debilities, and they were socially inept. Some of them had severe anger management issues, and some of them were not even human (Bela's characters apparently had a fondness for hiring apes).
Good help is often hard to find, but for Lugosi in particular his quest for good help seemed impossible. His collection of bizarre associates constantly ruined Bela's plans, sometimes undermining them on purpose. The "help" was so bad that many times Lugosi wound up doing the dirty work himself. A number of times Bela's assistants succeeded only in assisting him to an unexpected demise. In a few of his films Lugosi had more than one of these types of helpers, which just meant he had twice as much trouble dealing with them.
You'd think that Lugosi's characters would have learned after awhile, but they never did. A cursory examination of Bela's filmography reveals a long list of titles that featured a very dysfunctional labor force:
DRACULA: Dwight Frye
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE: Noble Johnson, Charles Gemora
WHITE ZOMBIE: A whole pack of the living dead
THE BLACK CAT: Harry Cording
THE RAVEN: Boris Karloff
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN: Boris Karloff
DARK EYES OF LONDON: Wilfred Walter
SPOOKS RUN WILD: Angelo Rossitto
GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN: Lon Chaney, Jr.
THE CORPSE VANISHES: Frank Moran, Angelo Rossitto
THE APE MAN: Emil Van Horn
RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE: Matt Willis
VOODOO MAN: Pat McKee, John Carradine, George Zucco
RETURN OF THE APE MAN: Frank Moran
ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY: Darby Jones
SCARED TO DEATH: Angelo Rossitto
ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN: Glenn Strange
BRIDE OF THE MONSTER: Tor Johnson
I'm sure there were some titles I missed, but you get the general idea.
The main villain having a strange unusual assistant is an important element in several classic horror films, but it seemed to fit Bela's acting style perfectly. Lugosi appeared to enjoy bossing his pathetic help around, or threatening them when things weren't going his way (he wasn't adverse to using a whip on them either). When one looks back on Bela's film career, it's hard to remember when he didn't have a maniac, or a dwarf, or a fake gorilla shuffling alongside him.
So what can we learn from this blog post (other than I have way too much time on my hands)??
If you are reviewing someone's resume, and you find out that they worked for Bela Lugosi at one time, you may not want to hire that person.
"He does things for me..."
Thursday, November 7, 2019
In the spring of 1939, Bela Lugosi was in London, England, starring in a film based on Edgar Wallace's novel DARK EYES OF LONDON. The movie would be released in America by Monogram under the title THE HUMAN MONSTER. The result is one of Bela's best showcases. The movie has long been one of the most common public domain titles on home video, and now it gets an official Blu-ray release courtesy of VCI Entertainment.
DARK EYES OF LONDON/THE HUMAN MONSTER is actually more of a crime thriller than a true horror film, with Bela as the sinister mastermind of a murderous insurance scheme. He plays Dr. Orloff, who, while not orchestrating the killing of unfortunate souls and collecting on their life insurance policies, poses as the kindly director of a home for the blind. In this guise as Dr. Dearborn, Bela also pretends to be blind, and he's dubbed by a British actor, supposedly to try and make the audience think it is another performer (it's easy to figure out that it's Lugosi, however).
Lugosi is quite vicious in this story, willing to eliminate anyone to get his way and using a hulking, blind disfigured fellow named Jake (Wilfred Walter) to commit murder. DARK EYES OF LONDON was not a big budget film, but it's lavish compared to most of the low-grade product Lugosi was usually associated with. Bela also gets good support from Hugh Williams as the no-nonsense police inspector investigating Orloff's crimes, and Greta Gynt as the lovely female lead.
Director Walter Summers keeps things cracking during the tight 76 minute running time, and the story is a bit brutal for a movie of this period, with torture and drownings part of the menu. Sadly Bela wouldn't get very many chances to have this much to do in a major feature film ever again.
DARK EYES OF LONDON should probably get more credit than it does, but I believe the film has been hurt by all those poor quality public domain copies over the years. When VCI announced they were going to give the movie a Blu-ray release, classic monster fans on the internet expressed hope that it would be a worthy one. The front of the disc cover claims that the film has been "restored in 2K from the 35mm fine grain".
And how does it look? It's an improvement from the public domain copies....but only a very slight one. The image throughout is soft, and the picture looks more gray than black & white. At times dialogue sounds indistinct. It's certainly watchable...but I wouldn't call this a major restoration. The print used on this disc is the American release version of the film, with the title THE HUMAN MONSTER.
VCI has provided many extras, including liner notes by Patrick McCabe, and a extensive poster and photo gallery. Two audio commentaries are provided. One has Lugosi expert Gary D. Rhodes, who starts out by giving info on the movie, but winds up spending a lot of time lecturing about Hollywood double features and the British horror film ban of the 1930s. The other (which I have not listened to) features David del Valle and Phoef Sutton.
DARK EYES OF LONDON/THE HUMAN MONSTER has long needed a decent home video release. VCI's Blu-ray is better than the public domain versions, and they did put some extras on it....but I have the nagging feeling that somewhere there's a much more pristine print of the film that's just waiting to be put out by another company. Lugosi fans will still want to get this, at least for now, simply because it's one of the actor's prime performances.
Saturday, November 2, 2019
I picked this volume up at a local Meijers at a discount--there's nothing better than getting books cheap.
In high school back in the 1980s I read the first major biography of George Lucas, SKYWALKING, by Dale Pollock. This newer book by Brian Jay Jones is a much more thorough examination of the filmmaker, going up to the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS.
Much of what is in this biography will be familiar to hardcore Star Wars fans, such as the car accident that nearly claimed Lucas' life as he was on the verge of graduating high school, and his battles with studios on films such as THX-1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI. What really comes across in this book is Lucas' fiercely independent nature. He was determined to make the movies he wanted to make, and make them his way, with no interference from anyone else--and he succeeded in that goal.
Lucas' independent streak has affected his personal life as well. He maintains his base of operations in Northern California, away from Hollywood, and as an intensely private man, he has no interest in living a glamorous lifestyle. Lucas considers himself an ordinary person, despite the fact he is one of the richest individuals in the world.
Jones examines Lucas' complex relationships with his friends Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and his first wife Marcia (who won an Oscar as co-editor on STAR WARS).
Obviously the Star Wars saga plays a large part in this book, but some of the more intriguing items covered are the Lucasfilm projects that did not make it big, such as HOWARD THE DUCK, RADIOLAND MURDERS, and RED TAILS. Jones suggests that the critical and financial failure of RED TAILS was the impetus for Lucas to sell Lucasfilm to Disney--an act the film mogul may be regretting.
The author writes in a clear, concise, easy-to-read style. He does not go into too much technical or analytical detail about Lucas' movies (one doesn't have to be a major film geek to enjoy this book). Jones makes very clear Lucas' impact on cinema and the entertainment industry, but he also points out that the filmmaker's individualistic attitude has many times caused him problems.
George Lucas has taken a lot of flack over the last 20 years, especially from people like me. But no one can deny his effect on modern-day cinema, or on modern-day culture. For better or worse, George Lucas has had more impact on society than just about any other human being in the last half-century. This book reiterates that, while defining Lucas as real person instead of a mysterious, remote figure. You can say what you want about him, but let's remember that he hired Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.