Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My Top Five Blu-rays Of 2020

 


There's no need for me to tell you that this year sucked. But this was a great year for home video product (that is, if you still had enough money to buy any of this stuff). 

Thankfully, I'm still working regularly, so, as usual, I spent plenty of money on Blu-rays and DVDs. And I still don't even have a multi-region player....could you imagine how much even more money I'd have spent if I did?? 

This year, the usual suspects--Criterion, Kino, Shout Factory, etc.--continued to release outstanding product. Shout Factory in particular deserves kudos for their series of Hammer Films releases. 

Warner Archive gets two slots on this list for their much-needed restorations of a couple of famed classic horror films, and Arrow Video gets the top slot for putting out one of the greatest home video sets of all time. 




1. GAMERA: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION from Arrow Video

An absolutely amazing eight-disc set, which contains every single Gamera film ever made, tons and tons of extras for each film, a book containing info on the series, a reprint of the 1990s Dark Horse Gamera comic books....I wrote a full blog post review of this in September. If a giant fire-breathing flying turtle doesn't deserve his own expensive Blu-ray set, who does???



2. BRUCE LEE: HIS GREATEST HITS from Criterion

Bruce Lee's action-adventure films from the 1970s have been released on home video in various incarnations over the years, but this is THE Bruce Lee collection you should get. Criterion pulled out all the stops in this 7-disc set, with numerous extras, multiple audio commentaries, and a special booklet. All the films look spectacular....the restorations on the Golden Harvest movies in particular are stunning. What puts this set over the top is the addition of ENTER THE DRAGON--there's actually two different versions of that film here. 

3. THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM from Warner Archive

One of my 50 favorite movies of all time, and one that sorely needed a complete restoration. Put away the memories of the faded two-color Technicolor print of this film--this Blu-ray is almost a resurrection. Warner Archive also saw fit to include valuable extras, including two excellent audio commentaries. I wrote a full post on this release in May. 

4. THEIR FINEST HOUR: 5 BRITISH WWII CLASSICS from Film Movement 

A must-needed set for the Region A crowd, with 5 of the greatest British war films on one Blu-ray set. The movies are WENT THE DAY WELL?, THE COLDITZ STORY, THE DAM BUSTERS, ICE COLD IN ALEX, and the 1958 version of DUNKIRK. All of the movies have been digitally restored, they look great, and they are all uncut and in their original aspect ratios. There's plenty of extras on this set too. 

5. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN from Warner Archive

I just wrote a post on this a week ago. The true beginning of Hammer Gothic Horror gets the restoration it deserves, and extras to boot. This release barely beats out Shout Factory's Blu-ray of Hammer's THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. 



Saturday, December 26, 2020

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES

 


Being this is the holiday season, the movie IT"S A WONDERFUL LIFE gets discussed often. What doesn't get discussed nearly enough is what happened to the career of that film's director, Frank Capra, after it was made. 

Capra is one of my favorite movie directors of all time, and in the 1930s he made an incredible string of hits, a series of comedic, touching stories about ordinary Americans and American life in general. One of those films was LADY FOR A DAY, which was written by Capra's frequent collaborator, Robert Riskin, and based on a story by Damon Runyon. LADY FOR A DAY concerns a Depression-era street peddler named Apple Annie (May Robson), who has been secretly using what money she has to raise her daughter in Europe. Annie finds out her daughter is going to marry into nobility, and the girl wants to come and visit her in New York. Annie is desperately afraid her daughter will find out what she really is, so she enlists the help of a gangster named Dave the Dude (Warren William) to help her out of her predicament. Dave and his streetwise friends turn Annie into a duchess, and they manage to get New York's most powerful people to pay homage to her and her daughter. 

LADY FOR A DAY is a great film, with plenty of sentimentality and humorous performances. Years later, Capra, who felt left out in 1950s Hollywood, decided to remake it, hoping it would put him back in the limelight. 

The result, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, made in 1961, would up being the last full-length theatrical film Capra would direct. The movie only showed how out of touch Capra was. 

Capra had spent most of his career as a powerful producer-director at Columbia Pictures. In his later years, Capra was not associated with any studio, and he had to get major help to get any movie made. For POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, Capra teamed up with actor Glenn Ford and his production company. Ford would play Dave the Dude in the remake. Capra wasn't happy with this casting, but Ford was the only star at the time willing to be involved in the project. 

In his autobiography, Capra mentions a number of actors he wanted to play the Dude, including Steve McQueen, who would have been an intriguing choice. Just about anyone would have been better than Glenn Ford, who is totally miscast as a 1930s bootlegger. Dave the Dude is supposed to have a rough attitude, but be a softy at heart--and Ford doesn't play him that way at all, he's just all bluster. 

What was worse about Ford for Capra is that the actor had as much say over the production as the director did--something Capra could not stand. Capra wanted Shirley Jones to play the pivotal role of Dave the Dude's girlfriend, but Ford demanded that Hope Lange, who he was having a relationship at the time, be cast instead. (Despite what they were in real life, Ford and Lange have no chemistry together in this movie.) 

Bette Davis, who at the time was as much of a Hollywood outsider as Capra, took on the role of Apple Annie, after several other actresses turned it down. May Robson was perfect as Apple Annie in LADY FOR A DAY, while Davis just hams it up. (It didn't help that Davis didn't get along with Capra either.)

For a time Capra considered setting the remake in contemporary times, but when actually making the film he kept it in the early Thirties timeline. He also had Robert Riskin's brilliant original script re-written (a big mistake). 

LADY FOR A DAY has a big advantage, in that it was made in 1933, so all the sets, costumes, and characters are true for the period. POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES is in widescreen, in color, and it has huge sets. Other than some old cars that the viewer sees, the movie doesn't look--or feel--like it is set in the 1930s at all. Dave the Dude and his cronies act like they're trying out for a mediocre version of GUYS AND DOLLS. 

LADY FOR A DAY runs about 96 minutes, while POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES runs 136 minutes....or should I say, drags. What's shocking is that Capra's sense of pace, timing, and rhythm are not in evidence here. Capra's masterful editing techniques are absent as well (the movie seems to be made up of master shots). There's plenty of great supporting actors here (as there are in every Capra movie), but none of the characters are very appealing, or all that funny. This is one of those movies where everyone shouts a lot at each other to try to get a cheap laugh. Spending over two hours watching Ford and Lange fail to be funny is not an enjoyable experience. 

Peter Falk, who played Dave the Dude's right-hand man, got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, although I honestly can't see why. Ann-Margret made her big screen debut as Apple Annie's daughter, and she even gets to sing a little. She's by far the most likable person in the movie (Capra should have focused more on her). 

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES was released by United Artists before Christmas, 1961. The film had a large budget, but it went on the become a financial and critical disappointment. Frank Capra never made another film. 

In his autobiography Capra claimed that he had major, painful headaches during the making of POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (were these psychosomatic?). Considering the pressures of remaking one of his best films, his problems with Ford and Davis, his disillusionment with modern Hollywood, and his age (he was in his early 60s), one has to come to the conclusion that Capra's heart was not in the effort. All the ingredients for a great film are there in POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, but in my opinion it is flat and lifeless. It was a sad ending for one of America's greatest filmmakers. 



Friday, December 25, 2020

Season Two Of THE MANDALORIAN

 




One good thing about 2020 was the second season of THE MANDALORIAN. 

The first season of the show was great--but it wound up being an appetizer for Season Two. This year the show expanded its horizons, giving more of an examination of the post-RETURN OF THE JEDI Star Wars Universe. The Mandalorian is no longer a mysterious loner--he's a man with firm friends and relationships, and he's fully entangled in the conflict between the New Republic and the remnants of the Galactic Empire. 

Season Two brought in all sorts of characters from throughout the various incarnations of the Star Wars Universe, including Boba Fett, Bo-Katan, Ahsoka Tano, and an appearance from a major character in the season finale. If a fan was unsure about this show's place in the Star Wars catalog before, there's no doubt it's an important part of the franchise now. 

Executive producers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, along with various directors such as Robert Rodriguez, have given THE MANDALORIAN a feel and texture that perfectly matches that of the Original Star Wars Trilogy. Obviously there's a fair amount of CGI involved in the making of this series, but there's not a sense that the show is inundated with it. The special effects and action sequences have a physical reality to them. The show is more interested in good storytelling than in-your-face over the top spectacle. 

The series is helped tremendously by the streaming format. Because the episodes do not have to fit into a certain time frame, the stories can be 30, 40, or 50 minutes long....whatever length is necessary for a particular tale. They don't have to be lengthened or shortened to fit into any pre-arranged slot. This gives the creators behind each episode far more freedom than the staff of a typical network TV show. 

The Third Season will have some intriguing possibilities, even without fan favorite Grogu. Actually having the character leave the Mandalorian to undergo Jedi training was a smart idea--Grogu is so hot on social media right now that inevitably his popularity would start to wane eventually. Hopefully more of the post-ROJ society will be explored. 

As for the news that Disney is planning ten new Star Wars series....that's definitely overkill. Of course there's no guarantee that all of these shows will even wind up being made. And even if they are made....the chances are that only a few of them will turn out to be good. Did Disney learn anything by having a new Star Wars film come out five years in a row? 

I've said this before, and I'll say it again--anything connected to Star Wars should be special, like ice cream. No matter how much you love ice cream, if you had to eat it 10 times a day, over and over again, you'd get tired of it. Luckily, THE MANDALORIAN continues to feel special, and it gives Star Wars fans a true sense of hope. 



Monday, December 21, 2020

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN On Blu-ray From Warner Archive

 




Despite all the horrid things that happened in 2020, fans of Hammer Films couldn't complain about the many home video releases of the famed company's product. Shout Factory continued its Hammer series, and Mill Creek released a 20 film Blu-ray set of Hammer movies made for Columbia Pictures. The Warner Archive Collection, however, topped everyone this year with its two-disc special edition release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. This is the first time the movie has appeared on a North American Blu-ray. 

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN should be quite familiar to readers of this blog. Its impact on the history of fantastic cinema cannot be underestimated. First color Gothic horror film made by Hammer....first true horror film directed by Terence Fisher....first "real" Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee movie...THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN should have been released on Region A Blu-ray a long time ago. 

Thankfully Warner Archive didn't just slap the movie on a disc and leave it at that. The WAC gave CURSE a release befitting its importance. The print used on this Blu-ray has been restored and remastered from 4K scans, and viewers get three aspect ratios to choose from. Disc One has the movie in either a 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 widescreen ratio, while Disc Two has a standard 1.37:1 "open matte" version. (Why include a standard frame version? The folks at Warner Archive point out that for many years, this was how the movie was seen on TV, and they're right--it's how I saw it for the first time on the "Son of Svengoolie" program in the mid-1980s.) 

And how does this spiffed-up CURSE look? I'd have to say it looks very well indeed. There are times when the print appears a bit soft in the early parts of the film, but it is brighter and more colorful, and I was able to discern much more background detail, including things I don't remember noticing before--and I've watched this movie dozens and dozens of times. What really stood out for me was the laboratory scenes and the outdoor sequences. There's a new sense of overall clarity and vitality to this film now, and the sound quality has been improved as well. 

Warner Archive also saw fit to include some pertinent extras. If the presentation of CURSE on this Blu-ray reminds you of the Shout Factory Hammer releases, it's no surprise--Constantine Nasr, who worked on the Shout Factory series, prepared the extras here. 

Four featurettes analyzing the film are on Disc Two. Hammer expert Richard Klemensen discusses the impact of CURSE, and how it changed the direction of Hammer Films. Another program has music composer Christopher Drake delving into James Bernard's original score for CURSE, and his other work on Hammer's Gothic horrors. 

Cinematographer David J. Miller gives an insightful talk on Jack Asher and his expert lighting techniques on CURSE and other Hammer productions. The best of the extras has the esteemed Sir Christopher Frayling discussing THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the English Gothic tradition (one wishes that Frayling had been able to do an audio commentary for the film). The four programs run around 20 minutes each (my only complaint on them is that they weren't longer). 

There's a new audio commentary, and if you've bought any Hammer Blu-rays recently, you can probably guess who does it....yes, it's Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman. The two had access to earlier versions of CURSE's script, and they compare these versions with what actually wound up in the film. There's also a very tacky-looking trailer (which I'm sure most Hammer fans have seen plenty of times). 

Warner Archive deserves credit for realizing how important THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is, and how it needed a restoration and proper extras to accompany it. Now, film geeks are wondering.....will the other Hammer Films controlled by Warners also be given the special edition treatment?? Their recent Blu-ray release of HORROR OF DRACULA featured a very dark looking print, and absolutely no extras whatsoever--that one certainly should get an updated release, along with the 1959 THE MUMMY and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. 

Whether or not the WAC puts out any more special editions of Hammer films, their release of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a must-buy, and it is one of the best Blu-ray packages of the year. 














Tuesday, December 8, 2020

POSTMAN'S KNOCK

 


POSTMAN'S KNOCK is a 1962 British comedy starring Spike Milligan, about--what else--a hapless postman. The main reason I watched the film was that the major female role was played by one of the leading ladies of English Gothic cinema, Barbara Shelley. (It was no less than Veronica Carlson who made me aware of this movie.) 

Spike Milligan plays Harold Petts, who is quite content with his job running the mail service in a small English country village. Petts gets transferred to London, however, and things change mightily for him. The well-meaning fellow gets involved in one fracas after another, and his superiors don't know what to do with him. Petts proves his worth by stopping a gang of bumbling mail thieves. 

Spike Milligan is best known for being part of the famed creative comedy team The Goons, but there's nothing very inventive about POSTMAN'S KNOCK. (Milligan is given credit for "additional dialogue", but one wonders how much real input he had on the production.) POSTMAN'S KNOCK has a very generic story line: goofy but decent-minded lead character screws up constantly, and annoys everybody, but he proves his worth in the end, and he winds up with a beautiful girl as well. It's the type of comedy story that has been used hundreds of times, by such people as Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, and Adam Sandler (and no doubt will be used many times in the future). 

This type of story can be funny, depending on how the situation is set up and how fresh the approach is. In POSTMAN'S KNOCK the approach comes off as labored. The lead character is so dopey at times that one wonders how he's been able to be a fully functioning adult all along. The rest of the cast (except for Barbara Shelley) acts as silly and broadly as possible, in an effort to be funny. The movie isn't helped by Ron Goodwin's too-obvious music score, which sounds like it should be backing a Tom & Jerry cartoon. 



Spike Milligan and Barbara Shelley in POSTMAN'S KNOCK

Barbara Shelley's character is not just the only major female role in the film, she's also the most normal-acting person in it as well. She plays an unsuccessful artist who encounters Petts, and takes him on as a boarder in her flat. At first she's annoyed by him, then she feels sorry for him, and by the end of the film she feels affection toward him (why doesn't that work in real life for guys like me?). Shelley seems to have wandered in from the set of another picture, and one senses she wasn't too happy dealing with all the silly antics going on around her. She's still as attractive as always, although she isn't able to show off her gorgeous red hair, due to the movie being in black & white. 

POSTMAN'S KNOCK was filmed at the MGM Borehamwood Studios (apparently the company was hoping that Milligan would become a star like fellow Goon member Peter Sellers). Film buffs who watch this will notice many eccentric English character actors such as Warren Mitchell and Miles Malleson. 

I'm a big slapstick fan, but the attempt at it in POSTMAN'S KNOCK lacks pace, rhythm, and characterization. It was interesting, though, to see Barbara Shelley in modern clothes, and her playing a regular person. 


Sunday, December 6, 2020

MANK

 






The big thing trending movie-wise now is MANK, an exaggerated biopic of 1930s Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. 

The film purports to tell how Mankiewicz, suffering the after-effects of a car crash and holed up in a desert retreat, wrote what would become the basis of CITIZEN KANE. While writing, Mankiewicz has flashbacks to earlier in his Hollywood career, where he worked for--and battled--some of the most famous names in the industry. 

Director David Fincher, working from a script written by his father, filmed MANK in black & white, and he also chose to ape CITIZEN KANE's style, with many flashbacks and flashforwards. The cinematography (by Erik Messerschmidt) is excellent, but Fincher's visual and editing tricks I felt got in the way of the story. 

Certainly MANK will get the attention of film geeks, but this is not a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Studio bigwigs such as Mayer, Thalberg, and Selznick are portrayed as greedy louts, and Mankiewicz and his fellow screenwriter drinking buddies have plenty of self-loathing in them. 

Gary Oldman gives another tour de force performance as Mankiewicz. Once again Oldman seems not to act, but to become an entirely different person. Oldman's Mank is an acerbic alcoholic who goes out of his way to annoy and offend everyone around him. The irony is--and I assume that this irony was intended by the filmmakers--is that for all of Mankiewicz's cynical wit and biting of the hands that feed him, he's still nothing more than an employee, and reliant upon, the studio system he disparages. 

Mankiewicz's closest relationship isn't with his wife--it's his friendship with movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who was also media baron William Randolph Hearst's mistress. (Hearst is cleverly played in this movie by Charles Dance.) Davies winds up being the only person in the film who is truly honest and self-aware, but Mank winds up upsetting her as well. The major reason Mankiewicz doesn't come off as totally unlikable is due to the force of Oldman's performance. 

The movie bogs down in the middle due to a sub-plot involving the 1934 California gubernatorial race, in which author Upton Sinclair ran as a socialist. MANK suggests that Mankiewicz's despondency over how Hollywood bigwigs worked to make sure Sinclair was defeated was a major impetus toward his writing the KANE script. My internet research revealed that the real-life Mankiewicz wasn't particularly interested in Sinclair's campaign. It seemed to me that this subplot was the story that Fincher really wanted to tell. 

As for the movie's depiction of how the KANE script was written, and how much of it by who, there's plenty of historical evidence either way. I will say that Tom Burke, who plays Orson Welles, has the man down cold. 

MANK contains another magnificent performance from Gary Oldman, and it has plenty of references and famous person cameos for film buffs. But it's more interesting than enjoyable, and one shouldn't take all the incidents in it at face value. 


Saturday, December 5, 2020

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE

 






Boris Karloff had plenty of movies on release in 1940. That year he starred in films from Universal, Columbia, Monogram, and Warner Bros. The last movie on his Warner contract was BRITISH INTELLIGENCE, a very convoluted, very low-budget espionage tale set during World War One. 

Karloff plays Valdar, a spy who has obtained a position as a butler in the London home of a British cabinet minister (Holmes Herbert). Valdar pretends to be a French refugee....but is he really spying for the Germans? Or is he a double-agent for the British? Or is he a triple-agent? The same could be asked for the character played by Margaret Lindsay, who is ordered by her German contacts to make contact with Valdar. 

The hour-long film has plenty of plot--nearly every character in it is a spy--but it winds up being a confusing affair, and all the action comes from a lot of stock footage. Karloff's Valdar has a nasty-looking bayonet scar (Warners must have felt that Boris had to have some kind of facial makeup), and he pretends to have a limp and a French accent. Or is he pretending? Karloff and Lindsay's characters shift allegiances and attitudes so many times it's hard to figure out exactly who they really are. 

Considering that this film was released in 1940, it's surprising that the story is set during WWI. Despite that there's plenty of dialogue foreshadowing WWII, and a German officer who goes off on a rant about how the Fatherland will one day in the future rule the world. This gives the picture a weird "We're going to comment on current events, but we're going to pretend we're in the past" feel. 

Among the supporting cast are three actors who would appear in other Karloff films--Holmes Herbert, Lawrence Grant, and Lester Matthews. The movie does have nice cinematography by Sid Hickox, but stylistically it's not much different than the Mr. Wong features Karloff was starring in for Monogram. The director was Terry Morse, who ironically would be the man who handled the American version of the first Godzilla film. 

Expert monster movie historians Greg Mank and Tom Weaver have both wondered if Warners had just wanted to end their contract with Karloff as soon as possible, since BRITISH INTELLIGENCE is such an underwhelming affair. One would think after the success of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN the studio would have given Karloff a much better role in a much better story. BRITISH INTELLIGENCE doesn't even give Karloff all that much screen time, and he spends most of it just skulking around and acting suspicious. Sadly, there were plenty of movies to come in which Karloff would essentially be only doing the same thing. 


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

THE TELL-TALE HEART (1960)

 





In his essential book ENGLISH GOTHIC, Jonathan Rigby declares, "....THE TELL-TALE HEART is something of a lost classic, albeit a minor one, of British horror." Having seen the film for the first time over the weekend, I wouldn't exactly call it a classic. This Edgar Allan Poe adaptation from 1960 was made in England, produced by the Danziger brothers, and directed by Ernest Morris. In black & white, and the recipient of a very low budget, THE TELL-TALE HEART makes the Hammer horrors and the Roger Corman Poe films made during the same period look like multi-million dollar productions. 

Like most other movies based on the works of Poe, the script makes vast changes to the author's original tale. This version is set in the 19th Century, apparently in Paris--I say apparently because even though all the street signs one sees on screen are in French, all of the characters act English, and they all have English names. 

Laurence Payne plays Edgar Marsh, a morose fellow who has almost no social skills. Edgar lives a lonely existence in an old domicile, until one day he notices a beautiful woman entering the boarding house across the street. The woman is named Betty (Adrienne Corri), and Edgar makes several embarrassing attempts to gain her affection. The worst mistake Edgar makes is introducing Betty to his only friend, the dashing Carl (Dermot Walsh). As soon as Carl and Betty look at one another, one knows that Edgar will be shunted aside fairly quickly. The pathetic guy still thinks that Betty is his, until he finds out the truth the hard way. Edgar gets Carl to come over to his house, and he kills him by savagely beating him with a poker. Edgar buries his former friend underneath the floor in one of his rooms, and tries to carry on as if nothing had happened...but the murderer keeps hearing the beating of a human heart, and Betty decides to do some investigating on her own. 

Poe's original story "The Tell-Tale Heart" was very short, and it has very little material for a full-length film. This version fills things out by adding a love triangle (which, ironically, many of the Roger Corman Poe movies feature). But even that aspect is pretty thin for a 78 minute film. It's fairly obvious that Carl and Betty are going to get together, and one just waits for Edgar to exact his revenge. The murder sequence is quite grisly for the period, as is the scene where Edgar, driven crazy by the "beating" of Carl's heart, actually cuts the organ out and buries it outside. There's also a nice effect when the floorboards, and the lawn outside, appear to be "breathing" in rhythm to the supposedly beating heart. There's a lot to put up with, though, before and after these sequences. 

The big problem is the character of Edgar. He's such a forlorn loser that one wonders how he's been able to function in society (he looks like he's about 40). The idea that a man about town like Carl would be his close friend seems hard to believe. It's also hard to believe that such a milquetoast as Edgar would be able to commit such a violent murder. These problems might not have been as notable if this had been a short subject instead of a full-length feature. 

Genre veteran Adrienne Corri easily makes the biggest impression here, even though this is one of the most normal characters she ever played onscreen! Corri makes the audience's sympathy go to Betty--she tries to be kind to Edgar and not hurt him, but the dope just doesn't get it. At one point Betty sneaks into Edgar's house to do some snooping to find out what really happened to Edgar--and of course he comes back home, and Betty has to hide and sneak away from him, This sequence, and the various times that Edgar spies upon Betty as she's in her upper-floor apartment call to mind REAR WINDOW--even though this movie is nowhere near Hitchcock's class. 

THE TELL-TALE HEART has a double-twist ending that calls to mind numerous episodes of classic TV anthology shows. It might have been better if this movie were cut down to about 30 minutes and shown on THE TWILIGHT ZONE or ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. It doesn't have the flair or style of the Hammer or AIP Gothics. 


Friday, November 27, 2020

CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE

 






Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was a multifaceted and multi-talented individual. In his long life he was an illustrator, architect, matte painter, and a renowned graphic futurist. His drawings and conceptions of the solar system still inspire those working in the field of space exploration today. Bonestell is the subject of a 2018 documentary, CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE, which was written, produced, and directed by Douglass M. Stewart, Jr. I viewed it on the Tubi streaming channel. 

Bonestell had an amazing career. He was a talented artist at a young age, but his family wanted him to become an architect. Bonestell's designs would have influence on many famous structures in San Francisco and New York City, including the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Bonestell would move to Hollywood in the late 1930s and work as a matte painter at several movie studios (one of the films he did paintings for was CITIZEN KANE). After World War II, Bonestell began to do artwork depicting outer space, and he worked with George Pal on many science fiction films such as WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. 

The documentary covers all of this, in a straightforward manner, with many renowned individuals shown on camera talking about how Bonestell has influenced them. Special effects artists such as Douglas Turnbull, Craig Barron, Ben Burtt, and Richard Edlund are interviewed, along with several scientists and other graphic artists. 

The main highlight in the documentary are the brilliant paintings Bonestell created depicting the environs of outer space. They have a 21st Century feel to them--it's hard to believe that most of them were painted some 70 years ago. Bonestell's epic vistas of various planets and moons are stunning. 

Bonestell's work is covered in great detail here, but the documentary only gives us a glimpse of the man himself. A few audio snippets and archival interviews with the man are shown, but very little of his personal side is revealed. The film does mention that Bonestell personally experienced the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and suggests that may have had an impact on his more apocalyptic artwork. Bonestell's collaborations with Wernher von Bruan are also mentioned. (The documentary does point out that Bonestell, ironically, was not a science fiction fan--he was more interested in science fact.) 

I had known who Chesley Bonestell was, and I had seen some examples of his artwork....but until watching this documentary I had no idea of the full scope and impact of his entire career in the arts. CHESLEY BONESTELL: A BRUSH WITH THE FUTURE is a fascinating documentary, especially for those who are interested in and inspired by true creativity. 



Thursday, November 26, 2020

DOWNHILL (1927)

 



The number of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that I have not seen are in the single digits--and that total went down with my recent viewing of DOWNHILL, made in 1927. 

DOWNHILL was only Hitchcock's fourth film as a director, and it was his next feature after the highly successful THE LODGER. The star of THE LODGER, Ivor Novello, co-wrote the story for DOWNHILL, and he also plays the lead role. 

Roddy Berwick (Novello) is the big man on campus at his English boarding school. He comes from a wealthy family, he's athletic and handsome, and he's popular. His life comes crashing down after he's accused of an indiscretion by a working-class girl, and he is expelled from school. Roddy didn't do anything, but he keeps quiet for the sake of his best friend. Roddy's father kicks him out of the house, and with no means of support, he winds up being an extra in a stage review. Roddy is bequeathed 30,000 pounds by his godmother, and he marries the play's leading lady (Isabel Jeans). The conniving woman cheats on Roddy and spends all his money, and soon he's in France, making a living as a gigolo. The youth ends up in Marseilles, begging for a ship passage back home, where he is reunited with his family. 

DOWNHILL is nowhere near as exciting or inventive as THE LODGER. When Hitchcock would talk about DOWNHILL in later interviews, he would be somewhat dismissive about it. The movie has a very languid pace to it, and there isn't all that much to the plot--young rich guy gets into trouble, has to fend for himself, and has some bad experiences. Ivor Novello was quite good as the mysterious title character in THE LODGER, but his Roddy Berwick isn't captivating, and he's not the brightest bulb either. What hurts DOWNHILL the most is that Roddy's "degradation" doesn't seem all that degrading, especially for viewers that have actually had to do real work for a living. DOWNHILL does contain a theme that would crop up several times in Hitchcock's work--a well-to-do, attractive person being put through unusual and uncomfortable circumstances. 

Hitchcock works in plenty of visual flourishes when he can, but at times it feels as if he's straining to inject some life into a slight story line. Roddy is constantly shown going "down"--on a staircase, an escalator, and a elevator. There's a number of point of view shots, and the film gets more expressionistic near the climax, as Roddy starts to have visions. The director of photography on this was Claude McDonnell, and there are a number of atmospheric shot compositions. 

One major Hitchcockian moment is when we see a medium close-up of Roddy in a tuxedo. The camera moves back a bit to reveal that Roddy is actually a waiter, attending to a high-class couple....but then the point of view goes out even further, to show that all this is happening on a theater stage. 

DOWNHILL will certainly be of interest to Hitchcock fans, but it is not the type of material that was best suited for him. The excellent print of the film that I saw courtesy of TCM ran almost two hours, and the entire tale could have easily been told in half that time. 


Ivor Novello in DOWNHILL



Monday, November 23, 2020

Book Review: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW

 







In 2017, Del Rey published STAR WARS--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW, a book that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the film by featuring 40 stories that looked at the story from a different perspective. Now THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK gets the same treatment. 40 stories by 40 writers, in roughly the same order as the timeline of the movie. 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK--FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW showcases various background characters and material. There's a chapter taken from the viewpoint of the wampa that attacked Luke in the beginning of the film, and also one featuring the "space slug" (the official Star Wars Universe name for the creature is exogorth). There are stories about General Veers and Admiral Ozzel, and we find out what Yoda was doing and thinking when Luke arrived on Dagobah. 

Remember the guy who is trying to escape from Cloud City while carrying what looks like an ice cream maker?? He gets a chapter too (and it explains what that device he's holding was). The best story, in my opinion, is about how Obi-Wan's spirit feels while Luke trains with Yoda. 

It appears to me that it was much harder to come up with 40 stories on EMPIRE than it was for STAR WARS. That may be due to the fact that the movie has a very focused plot--there's only three main locations, and most of the stories deal with two of them, Hoth and Bespin. 

Nevertheless, this is for the most part a fun and intriguing read. This is a perfect holiday gift for a hardcore Star Wars fan, and no matter how many times you may have seen EMPIRE, reading this book will make you want to see it again. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

PROXIMA

 





A NEW movie?? Well, relatively new....it's PROXIMA, a French film from 2019, starring Eva Green, and co-written and directed by Alice Winocour. 

Green plays Sarah Loreau, who has been picked as a replacement to go on a space flight to the International Space Station. This is something that Sarah has wanted her entire life, but she has mixed feelings about how it will effect her young daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant). Sarah struggles to keep up with the intense training while dealing with being separated from Stella. She also has to prove herself to the self-assured American astronaut on the mission (Matt Dillon). 

PROXIMA may be about astronauts, but this isn't a whiz-bang science-fiction tale with flashy technology. This is a quiet, intimate drama, about a woman's attempt to juggle a high-pressure complicated career with her family issues. Green gives a fine, strong performance as Sarah. The character is not a kick-ass super woman, she's a real person with real emotions. Green has great chemistry with the young actress playing her daughter--they really could pass as a parent and her child (which isn't always the case in movie families). What helps the film is that Zelie Boulant doesn't act like a "movie kid"--her reactions and interactions feel true to life. (Would this have held true if Stella was played by an American child?)

What's refreshing is that there isn't a romance tacked on to the story. Green's character has an ex-husband that takes care of their daughter while she's away, but he's not a major part of the film. Green is very much on her own here--at the beginning, she and Matt Dillon's character get off on the wrong foot, but they learn how to work together and respect each other....and no, there isn't any physical sparks between them. 

PROXIMA has a very fact based tone to it (some of it was filmed at the European Astronaut Center near Cologne, Germany). At least, it seems fact based to me. The even-mannered, realistic attitude may come off as boring to some. I wouldn't say the movie had me riveted, but it did hold my attention, mainly due to Eva Green in the lead role. 

(By the way....while looking for a image to attach to this blog, I saw one poster that had Matt Dillon's face as big as Eva Green's....this is an absolute misnomer, Green is the real star here, Dillon just has a supporting role.) 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

HAND OF DEATH

 





HAND OF DEATH is a 1962 sci-fi/horror film, released by 20th Century Fox. The movie stars John Agar, but instead of his usual act of fighting monsters, here Agar becomes one. 

Agar plays Alex Marsh, a scientist who is experimenting with nerve gases. Marsh is a hardworking, determined fellow, and he winds up exposing himself to a chemical agent. Marsh discovers that he literally has a hand of death--if he touches anyone, or if anyone touches him, that person instantly dies. Marsh tries to get the head of the research facility he works for to find an antidote, but his situation gets even worse--his entire body becomes bloated and swollen, and his skin becomes blackened and cracked. Needless to say, this causes his girlfriend (Paula Raymond) great concern. Marsh wanders about for a while, with the police on his trail, before things come to a head at his girlfriend's beachfront home. 

What's striking about HAND OF DEATH is that it was released by a major studio, and it was shot in Cinemascope--yet it is only an hour long, and looks and feels very much like the low-budget science fiction stories made in the mid-1950s. There's more talk than action, and even when John Agar finally gets into full monster mode, he doesn't really do all that much, except stumble about. (Apparently it really was Agar underneath the monster makeup.) 

That makeup is the most memorable thing about the film (see picture below). Why Agar turns into such a creature--or why he has a touch of death to begin with--isn't really explained. In my research on this movie, many have commented on the makeup's resemblance to the Marvel comic book character The Thing, which was debuted around the time this film was being made. It's ironic that the makeup looks like The Thing, since Agar's transformation due to a series of strange gases is very much like the origin story of a number of comic book heroes and villains. 



John Agar in HAND OF DEATH

The makeup is effective from a visual standpoint, but it doesn't allow Agar to express himself in any way, thus lessening any sympathy the viewer might have for him. Director Gene Nelson also has all the scenes with Agar in Thing mode take place in bright daylight, which makes the creature at times look silly when he shuffles about in everyday surroundings. A scene where Agar in his full makeup gets into the back of a cab and starts grunting at the driver comes off as unintentionally funny. 

One wonders if the writer and producer of HAND OF DEATH, Eugene Ling, was influenced by THE FLY, which had come out a few years earlier. The relationship between workaholic Agar and his worried girlfriend Paula Raymond (who had appeared in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS) is reminiscent of that between David Hedison and Patricia Owens in THE FLY. Agar also tries to write a note asking for help while in full makeup, much like Hedison did in the earlier film. There's also a hint of the Karloff-Lugosi THE INVISIBLE RAY here, with the death touch, but a mention about Agar's jealousy over his girlfriend and a fellow scientist doesn't lead anywhere. 

Among the supporting cast of HAND OF DEATH are Joe Besser, who acts as if he's still in a Three Stooges short, and the future Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, who takes part in the old "innocent child inadvertently meets up with a monster" scene. Agar's lab assistant is played by John Alonzo, who would go on to become a distinguished cinematographer. Speaking of cinematography, the man who did it for HAND OF DEATH was Floyd Crosby, who makes the drab black and white settings look much better than they should have. 

HAND OF DEATH has a intriguing-looking monster, but the script doesn't give him much to do, and the hour long story doesn't have enough time to develop any of the main characters. John Agar does his best (the scenes where he is angry over his plight reminded me of his performance in THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS), but he's hindered by a monster makeup that doesn't give him a chance to show any emotion. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

WHITE TIGER (1923)

 





Earlier this month I covered DRIFTING, the main feature on a Kino Blu-ray that contains two silent films directed by Tod Browning. Today I'll look at the other movie on the disc, WHITE TIGER, which was made before DRIFTING but released after. 

WHITE TIGER is very much a precursor to Browning's THE UNHOLY THREE. A trio of con artists, who have issues with one another, use a strange and unique gimmick to gain access to the houses of the wealthy in order to rob them. The trio then winds up at a remote cabin in the woods. The three crooks in WHITE TIGER are played by Priscilla Dean, Raymond Griffith, and Wallace Beery. 

Raymond Griffith plays Roy, who runs a sideshow act involving a mechanical chess player. (It is Roy that gets inside the device and actually controls it.) Wallace Beery's shifty con man comes up with the idea of using the chess player as a way to steal from the rich, and Roy joins up with him and his "protegee", Sylvia (Priscilla Dean). Sylvia and Roy seem to have a special connection to one another--as well they should, since they are actually brother and sister (it was Beery's character that caused the death of their father and their separation from each other as young children). After a robbery, the three hole up in a remote cabin, where they are joined by a mysterious fellow (Matt Moore) who has an interest in Sylvia. All the characters' real identities are finally revealed, as is their fates. 

Tod Browning himself came up with the scenario for WHITE TIGER, and it contains many elements the director would use throughout the rest of his career. Raymond Griffith is now known as a silent movie comedian, but here he's the leading man, and with his mustache and striped shirt, he greatly resembles other Browning characters played by John Gilbert in THE SHOW and Norman Kerry in THE UNKNOWN. Priscilla Dean doesn't get much of a chance to shine here--she plays yet another female criminal who is rethinking her life. Wallace Beery and Matt Moore play the same type of characters they portrayed in DRIFTING. 

The most intriguing aspect of WHITE TIGER is the mechanical chess player, but it is only dealt with in the first half of the story. The second half consists of all the main characters stuck in the cabin, eyeing each other suspiciously. The movie bogs down quite a bit here, and the climax is somewhat disappointing. 

The version of WHITE TIGER featured on this Blu-ray is from a 16mm print, and it is not in the best of condition--but one is able to now at least see it on official home video, and that's the important thing. WHITE TIGER has been given a new audio commentary, by silent film historian Bret Wood. It is an excellent one, with Wood analyzing Browning's penchant for using the same situations and elements over and over again. The music score provided here for WHITE TIGER is by Andrew Earle Simpson. 

Another extra on this disc is the only surviving reel of the 1919 Browning film THE EXQUISITE THIEF. It stars Priscilla Dean as--you guessed it--a criminal, and the small amount of footage shows her robbing a swanky dinner party at gunpoint, and a night-time car chase. What is shown is enticing enough for one to wish the entire movie had survived. 

I've stated several times in the past on this blog how exemplary Kino's silent movie video releases are. This one is no exception, with two rare films from a famous cult director. Kino has plans to continue to work with Universal in releasing more of that studio's silent movie catalog. 



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA On Blu-ray From Shout Factory

 





I have often been asked, "What is your favorite all-time Hammer film??" The answer might surprise you--it is by far THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, the 1960 vampire adventure released in the United States by Universal. 

I realize that Christopher Lee is not in this film--heck, Dracula isn't even in it period. With all due respect to Mr. Lee, that doesn't matter here. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is the ultimate Hammer film, a colorful Gothic fairy tale directed to the hilt by Terence Fisher. The sumptuous lighting by Jack Asher, the magnificent production design by Bernard Robinson, the costumes, the sets....all combine to make this one of the greatest examples of English fantastic cinema. And to top it all off, Peter Cushing gives my personal favorite performance in any of his movies as the great and courageous fighter of evil, Dr. Van Helsing. Throw in a lovely damsel in distress in the form of Yvonne Monlaur (who I met in 2014), and striking supporting performances by Martita Hunt, Freda Jackson, and David Peel as the undead Baron Meinster, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA represents Hammer at the height of its power. There are a few plot inconsistencies, but once one is swept up in the the dark storybook aspects of the film, these are not that important. 

THE BRIDES OF DRACULA has long deserved a Region A Blu-ray special edition release. The movie was released as part of a Universal Hammer Blu-ray set a few years ago, but in a very strange 2.00:1 widescreen aspect ratio that didn't due the shot compositions any favors. Now Shout Factory has come along and set things right. 

First of all, Shout Factory presents THE BRIDES OF DRACULA in two different aspect ratios--a 1.85:1 version and a 1.66:1 version. Both transfers look stunning, showcasing the color photography and the wardrobes worn by the cast. The sound quality seems beefed up as well, even though it is in DTS-HD Mono. 

Shout Factory also provides some very worthy extras. The most important ones are two more episodes of "The Men Who Made Hammer" series. There's one on acclaimed cinematographer Jack Asher, whose virtues are extolled by Hammer historian and expert Richard Klemensen. Klemensen points out that even though Asher's painstaking efforts were considered too "slow" for a low-budget company like Hammer, none of the films that the man worked on for them ever went wildly over budget or over schedule. Klemensen also points out the various difficulties Asher faced while working at Bray Studios. 

The other "The Men Who Made Hammer" program covers Terence Fisher, and, as befitting its subject, is nearly an hour in length. Richard Klemensen was not only a huge fan of Fisher's work, he got to meet him and know him personally. Klemensen's talk on the director is the best and most insightful analysis of the man and his work I've ever experienced. 

A half-hour program, which was made a few years ago, about the making of the movie is included, and it features interviews with some of the cast & crew. There's a new discussion on Malcolm Williamson's score for the film by David Huckvale. (Williamson's music for BRIDES has never gotten a lot of appreciation, mostly due to the fact that he wasn't James Bernard.) Also on this disc is "The Haunting of Oakley Court", in which the Buckingham Palace of British horror films is visited and examined (ironically this extra is on the Severin Blu-ray of Amicus' AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS!). 

There's a brand-new audio commentary with--you guessed it--Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. They go through the various earlier incarnations of the script, and examine the overall fairy tale aspect of the film. They both agree with me that THE BRIDES OF DRACULA is one of the finest films Hammer ever produced. An extensive still gallery is here, along with a vintage radio spot for the film and a couple trailers. 

Last but not least, those (like me) who ordered this Blu-ray direct from Shout Factory received a 18 x 24 poster of the disc sleeve artwork by Mark Maddox. I love all the Maddox posters for the Shout Factory Hammer Blu-ray series, but this one is my favorite of them all--it's as if Jack Asher himself did the lighting for it (see below). The disc cover is reversible, and the other side has original American advertising artwork for the film (see above). 

When I started getting into Hammer films in the 1980s, and reading whatever was available at the time about the company, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA was barely covered. It was usually dismissed as "a Dracula film without Dracula", and the absence of Christopher Lee was mentioned more than anything actually pertaining about the film. The perception of the film has changed greatly since then--it is now generally looked upon as not only one of Hammer's best, but one of the best English Gothic films, period. This Blu-ray from Shout Factory gives THE BRIDES OF DRACULA the showcase it deserves. 




Saturday, November 7, 2020

YOUTH RUNS WILD

 




One of the few non-horror films Val Lewton produced during his tenure at RKO in the 1940s is a drama about juvenile delinquency called YOUTH RUNS WILD (1944). Like Lewton's terror tales, this movie has a very exploitative title....but the result is very non-exploitative. 

According to my internet research, Lewton meant for this to be a serious examination of the problems that American youth was facing on the home front during WWII. RKO wasn't happy with how the original cut turned out, and the release version of the film was apparently much different than what Lewton and director Mark Robson wanted. 

Despite the title of this movie, there's not a lot of youth running wild. The story concerns a young wife and her soldier husband, who is back home recovering from a war wound. (The couple is played by Lewton veterans Jean Brooks and Kent Smith.) The wife is worried about her teenage brother Frankie (Glenn Vernon), who has been missing school and getting into trouble. Frankie is in a romantic relationship with his next-door neighbor Sarah (Tessa Brind, later known as Vanessa Brown). Sarah has problems of her own--her parents work nights at the local defense plant, and they either ignore her or treat her like a servant. Frankie is put under the charge of his brother-in-law, and the soldier does his best to guide the youth and to find something for the other wayward kids in the neighborhood to do. Sarah is taken under the wing of a young woman by the name of Toddy (Bonita Granville), a tough-talking gal with a heart of gold, who "knows her way around". A tragedy ensues at the climax which causes Frankie and Sarah to grow closer together. 

One wonders what Val Lewton's original version of YOUTH RUNS WILD might have been, because the movie that was released feels watered down and disorganized. Frankie and Sarah are not bad kids (they're squeaky clean compared to the rebel teenagers in 1950s films). The biggest problem they have is that they are treated condescendingly by all the adults they know, even the ones that try to help them. Whenever the story seems to move toward more darker elements, it shifts back to formulaic situations. The main problem the story presents is that young Americans during the WWII era lacked proper supervision...but there's an undercurrent of cultural and economic problems that the movie doesn't examine fully. 

Fans of Val Lewton's RKO horrors will see plenty of familiar faces, such as Kent Smith, Jean Brooks, and even Elizabeth Russell as Sarah's defense worker mom (the viewer even gets to see Russell in work overalls). Bonita Granville (who had played Nancy Drew in the movies) gets the best role as the world-wise Toddy. At first she comes off as unlikable and sarcastic, but she shows her true colors by helping out the naive Sarah and giving her a sense of independence. Unfortunately Toddy winds up being "punished" for her too-smart girl ways in an ending which seems forced and arbitrary. Toddy's boyfriend, a sharpy who runs a shady gas station, is played by a young Lawrence Tierney, who effortlessly makes an impression with his very small role. (It seems that Tierney is going to be a major focus of the story, but he disappears for almost the rest of the running time soon after he's introduced.) 

YOUTH RUNS WILD will be of interest to Val Lewton fans, and to those interested in the American home front during WWII. But due to apparent interference by RKO, the movie doesn't live up to expectations. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

DRIFTING (1923)

 





Kino continues to release rare silent movies on Blu-ray. A couple weeks ago I posted a review of their offering of Tod Browning's 1921 OUTSIDE THE LAW. The company has also brought out a Browning silent double feature, containing DRIFTING and WHITE TIGER. For today's purposes I'll be writing about DRIFTING. 

DRIFTING, produced by Universal in 1923, is another crime melodrama starring Priscilla Dean, with Oriental elements. Dean plays Cassie Cook, an American opium dealer based in Shanghai. Cassie (who is referred to in an intertitle as "the Poppy Princess") is getting tired of her shady lifestyle, and wants to go back to the states. She bets all of her remaining money on a horse race, and loses. This forces her and her dubious partner (Wallace Beery) to travel to a small village in the Chinese countryside, where their opium shipments come from. Cassie is supposed to waylay the government agent (Matt Moore) investigating the poppy fields. But she starts to have feelings for the him....as does the beautiful young daughter (Anna May Wong) of the man who is in charge of the opium operation. The opium growers, angry at interference with their trade, attack the village, causing all the main characters to fight for their lives. 

DRIFTING is entirely set in China, but it was filmed on the Universal backlot. It still has an almost epic feel to it, with an impressively designed Chinese village built for the film, and plenty of outdoor scenes. The Shanghai scenes in the beginning of the film almost border on the silly, but the story improves greatly once the characters get to the small village. The climax features a large battle between the poppy growers and the villagers, and it's very well handled, helped by dramatic tinting during the sequence. 

Priscilla Dean plays another bad girl who isn't really all that bad, and she does quite well in the role. She even gets to show off her prowess with a rifle during the battle in the village. Dean, however, has the movie stolen from her by the exquisite Anna May Wong, who was just a teenager when she made this film. Wong is so natural and moving in her role that one wishes she had far more screen time. The government agent hero is played by Matt Moore, who will be known by film buffs for playing the wimpy Hector in the silent version of THE UNHOLY THREE (which of course was directed by Tod Browning). I may be prejudiced due to his playing Hector, but I thought that Moore wasn't suited to be an action hero. 

There are other actors here with links to Tod Browning, such as Wallace Beery, and Edna Tichenor, who is famous for appearing in plenty of stills with Lon Chaney from the now-lost film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Tichenor plays Priscilla Dean's opium addicted friend, and she literally spends all her scant screen time strung out while laying in bed. 

On this Blu-ray Kino has used a 4K restoration of DRIFTING. The visual quality is very good (the tinting brings a great deal to the presentation). The music score, which is bombastic at times, is by Phillip Carli. The disc cover states that this Blu-ray is coded for A,B, and C regions. 

A new audio commentary is provided for DRIFTING, by silent movie historian Anthony Slide. Slide gives out a lot of technical and production info, and he discusses the controversy over casting white actors in Asian roles. 

DRIFTING has a lot more visual flair than one expects from a Tod Browning film, and it is less macabre than the director's more famous works. Despite the fact that it is essentially about drug dealing, the movie has a sentimental aspect to it at times. I'll be covering WHITE TIGER, and the rest of the extras on this disc, in an upcoming blog post. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

OUTSIDE THE LAW On Blu-ray From Kino

 





Another home video presentation of a rare silent classic from Kino. This time it is the 1920 OUTSIDE THE LAW, co-written and directed by Tod Browning. 

This was an early collaboration between Browning and Lon Chaney, but it is not a tale of the macabre. Set in San Francisco's Chinatown district, it details the efforts of jewel thieves Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean) and Dapper Bill (Wheeler Oakman) from being set up by the dastardly Black Mike (Lon Chaney). The story contains many elements that would be found in most of Browning's work--a small group of criminals infiltrating the homes of naive wealthy citizens, the idea of honor (or dishonor) among thieves, false identities, con games, and lawbreakers trying to change their ways. 

Lon Chaney's name may be at the top of the disc cover, but Priscilla Dean is the true star of this film. Dean is basically forgotten today (I barely know anything about her) but she was one of Universal's leading lights in the early 1920s. She appeared in a number of films under Browning's direction, and in OUTSIDE THE LAW I found her acting style to be very restrained and down-to-earth for the period. Dean's Molly is crafty and independent-minded, and she certainly doesn't need to require upon a man. If she's going to go straight, it's going to be on her own terms. 

Chaney still does make a major impression as the tough as nails Black Mike. (If Chaney had lived past 1930, I think he might have become the first real gangster movie star instead of the first real horror film star.) Chaney also plays a secondary role as a kindly Chinese servant. That role seems to exist just to show off Chaney's abilities in makeup, but the character does have an important factor in the climax. That climax, by the way, consists of some very brutal fistfights and gun battles. 

The climax would be even more notable if one was able to see it more clearly on this disc. At about an hour into the story, nitrate composition becomes very bad, and it lasts throughout the end of the film. I'm not trying to complain about this--Kino and Universal have done their best to make this film available to the public--but it has to be mentioned. The disc case states that this is a new 4K 35mm restoration, and for about the first hour, it looks impressive. An alternate ending from a 16mm version is included, but this does not feature the action-packed climax. There's also a comparison between some of the scenes from the 35mm and 16mm versions. The at times bombastic music score on this release is by Anton Sanko. 

This disc also has a new audio commentary by Anthony Slide. He gives out a lot of info on Priscilla Dean and Tod Browning in particular, along with background on the film's production and why the movie is in the shape it's in. 

OUTSIDE THE LAW may not have as much footage of Lon Chaney as some may want, but it is a very effective crime melodrama. It shows why Priscilla Dean was a major star at one time, and that Tod Browning was a fine storyteller during the silent era. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

THE APE On Blu-ray From Kino

 





In the late 1930s, Boris Karloff signed a deal with low-budget Monogram Pictures to star in a series of films concerning the exploits of a Chinese detective named Mr. Wong. Karloff's last film in the contract wound up being a horror film: 1940's THE APE, just released on Region A Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. 

Karloff plays Dr. Bernard Adrian, a researcher in a small town who is shunned by the local population. Adrian is determined to find a cure for polio--his own wife and daughter died from the disease, and the only person who is friendly to him, a beautiful young neighbor (Maris Wrixon), is suffering from it. When a circus comes to town, an animal trainer is mauled by a gorilla. Adrian uses the victim's spinal fluid in his quest for an antidote. The antidote appears to work, but Adrian needs more of it--and after he kills the gorilla when the beast breaks into his laboratory, the doctor comes up with the idea to use the creature's pelt and disguise as it, that way he can kill others for more spinal fluid. Needless to say, things don't work out too well. 

THE APE isn't as whacked-out as most Monogram horror product from the 1940s, but it still has its moments. For whatever reason, the townsfolk can't stand Dr. Adrian right from the get-go (at the beginning of the film, a bunch of bratty kids throw rocks at the doctor's house, and this is way before he starts to try to kill anybody). The story bends over backwards to make Adrian a sympathetic figure--the local citizens are for the most part dim-witted rubes, and the one person the doc does kill is an absolute louse. Karloff helps the film immeasurably with his low-key, committed performance. At the time THE APE was made, Karloff was playing a lot of mad (or at least determined) scientists--in a series of science-fiction films at Columbia, and in BLACK FRIDAY at Universal. Those movies and THE APE share some similar features, such as an elderly-looking Karloff dealing with test tubes, looking through a microscope, jotting down notes, etc. (Boris played so many overreaching scientists during this period that one wonders how he was able to differentiate between all the scripts.) 

The ape in THE APE was played by gorilla suit veteran Ray "Crash" Corrigan", and, no, he doesn't for a minute make you think you are watching a real animal. (No matter what you think of it as a story element, the "Guy running around in a gorilla suit" sub-plot lasted a long, long time.) The movie only lasts about an hour, which is just as well (the story wouldn't have held up too well much longer than that). The two writers credited, Curt Siodmak and Richard Carroll, came up with much better material in their careers. Director William Nigh was a poverty row mainstay by this time, but he had directed Lon Chaney during the silent era. 

Kino's presentation of the black and white THE APE is quite sharp, especially considering this is a Monogram picture (this certainly isn't a cheap public domain transfer). An image gallery is included, along with two different audio commentaries. One may wonder why a movie like THE APE deserves two commentaries, but I believe Kino must have realized that some special extras were needed for a hour long low-budget black and white film that can easily be accessed on YouTube. 

Tom Weaver's commentary has plenty of info and dry humor, as he tries to make sense of THE APE's plot machinations. Richard Harland Smith's talk focuses mainly on the careers of those who worked on the picture. After listening to both, you'll know all you need (and more) about THE APE. 

Is this Blu-ray worth buying? If you are a Boris Karloff fan, and a fan of this type of material, yes. Monogram's poverty row horrors have gotten a lot of flack over the years, but in my opinion Kino is doing a service for film buffs in giving some of these productions a proper presentation. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS

 





WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS (original Italian title IL PLANETA ERRANTE) is one of four 1965 Italian science-fiction films detailing the adventures of the crew of a space station called Gamma One. All four films were directed by Antonio Margheriti (the American versions of these features use his "Anthony Dawson" moniker). 

Sometime in the future, the Earth is reeling under a series of natural disasters. Scientists are convinced that these incidents are being caused by a phenomenon in outer space, and Commander Rod Jackson (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is sent to Gamma One to investigate. The testy Jackson and his crew discover a weird planet-like mass, and the closer it gets to Earth, the more destruction it causes. The men and women of Gamma One must destroy the mass before it's too late. 

WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS isn't as wild or as woolly as the other three entries in the series. In the early part of the story there's a lot of talk, most of it techno-babble. Much of the plot deals with Commander Jackson's relationships with various crew members, which makes the movie feel like a soap opera in space. It doesn't help that the Commander is in a foul mood all of the time. (I much prefer the leadership style of actor Tony Russel, who ran the space station in the first two Gamma One films.) As in the other stories in this series, there's a romantic triangle--the Commander is engaged to a General's daughter, but he has a relationship with Gamma One's communications officer, a red-haired beauty (Ombretta Colli). This situation doesn't really go anywhere, and one wonders why it was even introduced to begin with.

Things start to heat up when the crew gets to the planetoid. The bizarre mass is mostly covered by a red, jelly-like substance that sucks in unfortunate members of the crew. The Commander and his hand-picked team find a way into the mass, where they encounter giant spaghetti-like "arteries". Apparently the planetoid is some sort of living being (this aspect of the story should have been further developed). These sequences are visually striking, but they are hampered by mediocre attempts to show the characters floating and moving about in outer space. (These "space walks" happen frequently throughout the film.) 

The attempt to destroy the mass leads to a crew member's valiant sacrifice (a common story point in many 1950s and 60s science-fiction films), and the movie ends with a somber funeral--a unique way to climax an outer space adventure such as this. 

Actor Giacomo Rossi Stuart was a Eurocult veteran, and he'll be recognizable to Mario Bava fans. A minor role in the film is played by spaghetti western veteran Franco Ressel (he was the main villain in SABATA). The version of this film that I watched was dubbed in English. 

In summation, WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS isn't as outlandish or imaginative as the other films in the Gamma One series. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE

 


Out of all the blog posts that I have written, the one that has by far gotten the most hits is my examination of the screen pairings of Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr. (dandayjr35.blogspot.com/2013/07/evelyn-ankers-lon-chaney-jr.html). My theory on why is that Svengoolie shows about once a month a movie featuring Ankers and/or Chaney, and those watching go on the internet to find out more about them. 

In that post I mentioned that there was one movie co-starring Ankers and Lon Jr. that I had not seen--a 1942 Universal production set in early 20th Century Alaska called NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE. Recently I discovered that the film is on YouTube, in a very blurry-looking condition. But it is there, and I did view it. 

I had always assumed that THE WOLF MAN was the first on-screen pairing between Evelyn Ankers and Chaney, but NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE was made first, even though it was released after. One could still say that THE WOLF MAN is the first real time Ankers and Lon significantly interacted with each other, since in NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE they barely have any screen time together. 

The beginning main titles call the film "Jack London's NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE", because it is supposedly based on one of the famed writer's stories. I'm no Jack London expert, but I have a feeling that very little of his work made it into the finished product. (A number of writers are credited with the screenplay, and story credit is given to William Castle, of all people.) 

A group of settlers in early-1900s Alaska are trying to build a decent community out of the wilderness. Into this area arrives a mining expert named John Thorn (Broderick Crawford). Thorn has traveled to the area at the request of the unscrupulous Nate Carson (Lon Chaney Jr.). Carson has evidence there's a gold mine nearby, but the settlers are blocking his access to it. Carson hopes to drive the settlers away by stopping shipments of their food supplies. Thorn decides to help the settlers, one reason being his attraction to town leader Mary Sloan (Evelyn Ankers). It all leads to a knock-down, drag-out fight between Thorn and Carson. 

NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE is very much a "B" movie, being black & white and only running about an hour. Its plot is one that can be found in many Westerns--the conflict between those who want to settle the land and build something for the future and those who want to make a quick buck. There's nothing extraordinary here, except for maybe the outdoor locations around Big Bear Lake in California that were used (and which the fuzzy-looking version of this movie I saw on YouTube doesn't do justice.) 



Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers

The casting of Broderick Crawford as the main hero is somewhat unique. Crawford and Lon Jr. had a lot in common--both of them were more character actor types, big burly guys who had a working class persona about them. Crawford could have easily played Chaney's role. One gets the feeling that Crawford would much rather be carousing with Lon instead of helping out the clean-cut settlers. There's a hint of romance between Crawford and Ankers' characters, but it never seems real, due to the fact the two actors appear totally incompatible with one another. Ankers is her usual regal self, which makes the viewer wonder what in the heck a lady like her is doing in the Alaskan wilderness. Evelyn constantly looks as if she's not enjoying what she's doing--and, if the stories about Crawford and Chaney's rabble-rousing on location are true, one can understand why. 

Lon Jr. makes a good villain, even if he's more low-key than one would expect in the role. (If Chaney had played this same role later in his career, I think he would have been far more blustery and obnoxious.) There's plenty of comic relief character actors here, such as Andy Devine, Lloyd Corrigan, Willie Fung, and Keye Luke, and far too much time is taken up with their antics.

The director of NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE was Erle C. Kenton, a name familiar to classic Universal Monster fans. Kenton's main job here is to keep the story moving as fast as possible (and I bet he was told to keep the budget down as well). The huge brawl that Crawford and Lon engage in at the climax is well done--it has a realistic sloppiness to it, and it appears that most of it was performed by the two actors themselves. 

I wouldn't necessarily say that NORTH TO THE KLONDIKE is must viewing for Universal Monster fans, or fans of Lon Jr. and Evelyn Ankers. Since the couple barely had any screen time together in it, the movie doesn't shed any new light on their future pairings. It may explain why the two were not friends in real life. One wonders what Ankers' reaction would have been if someone had told her on the set that she and Chaney would be spending a lot of working time together in the next four years. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD On Blu-ray From Kino

 





CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is a Horror-Western, made by Universal and released in 1959. I first saw it on the "Son of Svengoolie" program back in the mid-1980s. One would expect a title like this to be included in one of Shout Factory's recent Universal Horror Blu-ray sets, but it gets a release on its own, courtesy of Kino Lorber. 

In the late 1800s, somewhere in the American Southwest, a small town is undergoing a series of mysterious deaths. The victims (stop me if you've heard this before) have tiny puncture marks on their necks. Dolores Carter (Kathleen Crowley) has other problems--her family's ranch is being threatened by the land-hungry Buffer (Bruce Gordon). After Dolores' father and younger brother are killed, she seeks out a gunman to settle the score, much to the consternation of her boyfriend, the town preacher (Eric Fleming). A mysterious, black-clad stranger named Drake Robey (Michael Pate) comes to Dolores' aid. Preacher Dan doesn't trust Robey, especially when he does some sleuthing and finds out that the gunslinger is one of the undead. Robey wants more from Dolores than just her blood, and it all leads to a showdown between him and the preacher. 

One automatically assumes that CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is somewhat silly, due to the mixing of totally different genres. But it comes out better than expected, considering that it is very low budget. Director and co-writer Edward Dein provides some notable set-ups, and he avoids any tongue-in-cheek humor. 

The leading attribute of CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is Michael Pate's portrayal of Drake Robey. Pate is by far the most charismatic member of the cast. His Robey has a cocky gunfighter vibe, but he also has a sense of tragedy about him, explained by a flashback which reveals how he became a vampire. Pate's Robey isn't totally evil--he appears to have feelings for Dolores, or at least he desires her. He's also the only one in the story that stands up to typical Western bad guy Buffer. Pate's vampire is a bit different than other earlier screen incarnations of the undead, in that he can still move around in daylight, cast shadows, and still pine for a normal life. Michael Pate's Drake Robey is a big-screen vampiric performance that should get more respect. 

The rest of the cast is filled with the type of actors one sees cropping up on various classic TV shows on MeTV every day--Kathleen Crowley, Bruce Gordon, Edward Binns, John Hoyt, and so on. Eric Fleming, who had just started on RAWHIDE when he made this, gets stuck with the "David Manners" role, and instead of heroic, he comes off as stuffy and disagreeable. (It makes sense that Dolores appears to be attracted to Drake Robey.) 

The MeTV vibe extends to the movie's style--it's black and white, and filmed on generic Western sets and locations. (If you came into the middle of the picture, without knowing what it was about, you'd think you had stumbled onto an episode of an old TV show.) Despite that, it's an intriguing tale, particularly for fans of vampire cinema. 

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen on this disc, and the picture quality is quite sharp. The sound is excellent as well, bringing out Irving Gertz's ulta-spooky music score. 

The main extra on this Blu-ray is a new audio commentary by Tom Weaver. As expected, it's filled with facts and trivia, and by Weaver's remembrances of his personal interactions with the director and members of the cast. (For whatever reason, Weaver seems to be a bit snarkier than usual this time around.) A few guests make vocal appearances on the talk, including David Schecter, who discusses the film's music. An extensive image gallery is included (ironically almost none of the advertising artwork reveals that the story is set in the American Old West). A few trailers for other Kino horror/sci-fi Blu-rays are also here. 

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD is one of the last films made by Universal on its lot that dealt with Gothic horror elements. It certainly isn't on the same level as the monster classics made by the company in the 1930s and 40s, but it is effective, and the gunslinger-vampire angle makes it stand out. 



Sunday, October 11, 2020

ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE

 





ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE is a 1960 Italian science-fiction film, directed by Antonio Margheriti. I viewed it on the Tubi streaming channel. The version I saw had an American International Pictures logo at the beginning, and an English voice track and credits. (Margheriti was credited with his usual pseudonym, Anthony Dawson.) 

In the year 2116, reporter Ray Peterson (Rik Von Nutter) is assigned to cover a story on a space satellite. Upon his arrival Peterson receives a frosty reception from the satellite's crew and its commander (David Montresor), who think that the reporter will just be a nuisance. Peterson saves the satellite's navigator, Lucy (Gabriella Farinon) from injury, and the two are instantly attracted to one another, further antagonizing the commander, who also has an interest in the girl. Those on the satellite learn that a wayward spaceship, Alpha Two, has re-entered the solar system, and is on a collision course for Earth. Ray goes along on an attempt to destroy Alpha Two, and he winds up landing on and entering the craft in order to stop it. 

ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE doesn't have anywhere near the flash and flair of the later sci-fi entries helmed by Antonio Margheriti. The movie tries to take a realistic approach to what it would be like to live and work in outer space, but it is hindered by some desultory special effects work and generic characters. Ray Peterson is more annoying than heroic--for a guy that lives in the 22nd Century, and has been in space several times, and is a reporter to boot, he doesn't seem to know all that much about what it is going on around him. He's constantly asking basic questions about everything, which enables the crew of the satellite to explain to him--and the viewer--what is going on. The actor who plays Peterson, Rik Von Nutter, isn't helped by being dubbed, but he's not exactly all that magnetic on the screen to begin with. (Von Nutter would go on to be one of the least-remembered men who played James Bond's friend Felix Leiter in THUNDERBALL.) 

This movie has only one major female character in Lucy, and she doesn't wear any skimpy futuristic costumes--she spends all of her time in common work clothes or a space suit. Love triangles would be a recurring theme in Antonio Margheriti's science-fiction features, but in this story it seems contrived, since Peterson and Lucy fall for each other having barely met. 

The person who catches one's attention the most here is a space veteran named Al, played by a black American actor (and Broadway dancer) named Archie Savage. Al is wise and philosophical, and he acts as sort of a mentor to Ray. Having any black male play a major role in any science-fiction movie made during this period was unusual, let alone the role of an intelligent, competent individual. One wishes that the film revolved around Al. 

Despite all the outer space incidents depicted in it, this movie is still very talky, with plenty of interior scenes. The special effects look more like toys than models. The wild, otherworldy aspects one sees in other Italian science-fiction films are absent here. There's no aliens, or uncharted galactic realms, or any real villains. The Alpha Two spaceship that is supposed to be a threat to all humanity isn't very impressive, and Ray attempts to shut it down by using some good old-fashioned wire cutters. There are a few good ideas here, such as Ray and the crew of the spaceship taking him to the satellite being put into hibernation during the trip. The viewer isn't given much of an idea what society in the 22nd Century is like, except for hints that a world order is in charge. While in space, all the characters are assigned a letters and numbers combination code, and this is displayed quite prominently on the backs of their uniforms. In my mind this made them resemble inmates in a prison. For some reason all the scenes in outer space are in black & white. 

ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE was the first film that Antonio Margheriti would receive full credit for directing, and his style--and choice of subject matter--would get much bolder as time went by. Margheriti would follow this movie up with BATTLE OF THE WORLDS, a much better science-fiction tale (I wrote a blog post on it a couple years ago). It was with a series of features about a space station called Gamma One that Margheriti's imagination and creativity would really flourish. ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE just isn't as riveting as Margheriti's later works. 


Saturday, October 10, 2020

Brian Clemens' THRILLER--"Spell Of Evil"

 


Among the many streaming services I have access to through Disney+ and Xfinity is the Tubi channel. I've seen a lot of obscure movies and shows on Tubi, and I've written a number of blog posts on them. 

I recently discovered that Tubi carries episodes of a early 1970s British TV show called THRILLER. This isn't the famed Boris Karloff THRILLER that was produced in the 1960s. The British THRILLER was created by Brian Clemens, best known for his work on THE AVENGERS. 

I had no knowledge whatsoever of this show. Being that it was made in England during the seventies, one can assume that there were many veterans of Hammer Films involved in the program--and that assumption is correct. An episode listing that particularly caught my eye was for "Spell of Evil". This entry starred Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel, who played the young married couple in one of Hammer's best films, THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. The episode also starred Diane Cilento, who worked for Hammer and made a memorable appearance in THE WICKER MAN. 

"Spell of Evil" starts out with a pre-credits sequence that shows the wife of businessman Tony Mansell (Edward de Souza) dying of a mysterious illness. Months later, the lonely Tony decides to submit his name to a dating service. Also immediately after he does this, a bold raven-haired beauty named Clara (Diane Cilento) shows up at his office, and sweeps him off his feet. Tony and Clara get married, and the businessman's life seems revitalized. Tony's loyal and efficient secretary, Liz (Jennifer Daniel) isn't so sure. Liz is distrustful of the new Mrs. Mansell, and her feelings are exacerbated by the fact that she has a crush on her boss. Strange occurrences start happening to Tony's associates, and the man himself starts to suffer from the same symptoms as his late first wife. Liz investigates the background of the mysterious Clara, and discovers that she is a centuries-old witch. 

"Spell of Evil" is an okay tale, but it's fairly easy to discern what's going to happen after the first ten minutes of the show. (Terence Feely is credited as the writer.) Diane Cilento acts suspicious from the very get go, and you'd have to be rather dense not to know that she's behind all the "unexplained" circumstances. The episode is about 70 minutes long, and honestly the story could have been edited down to a half-hour and it wouldn't have lost much. 

Like most British TV shows of this period, the interior scenes of this episode were shot on videotape, while the very few outdoor shots were on film. This gives the show a soap-opera type of feel, which I think mitigates the suspense. There's also a few annoying zoom-ins (the director of "Spell of Evil" was also the show's producer, John Sichel). 

Hammer fans will enjoy seeing Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel together again (this time in modern dress). De Souza is hindered by a wavy perm in his hair that is distracting. Daniel plays very much the same type of character that she portrayed in THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE and THE REPTILE--a kindly, stable individual who tries to help others. She is the one who finds out the truth about Clara, by seeking out a Van Helsing-like professor. This aspect of the tale comes near the very end of the show, and more should have been made of it. Diane Cilento gets the showiest role, and she makes the most of it. Would a more subtle approach to the character of Clara had worked? Maybe not, since the episode wasn't really all that thrilling. 

It's hard to judge a television show on the basis of just one episode. If you're familiar with most fantasy/horror tropes, "Spell of Evil" will be very predictable. I might check out a few more episodes of this THRILLER--there's plenty of others that feature Hammer stars.