Thursday, January 30, 2020
The outstanding character actor Donald Pleasence gets to have a leading role, and a romance with a beautiful young woman as well, in the 1962 historical drama DR. CRIPPEN.
In 1910 England, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was convicted of murdering his wife and later executed by hanging. The trial and details of the crime were something of a trending topic at the time, and the case has been referenced in several detective stories and murder mysteries.
The movie DR. CRIPPEN sticks mostly to the facts, or at least to a very straightforward interpretation of the case. The film is technically set during Crippen's trial, but many lengthy flashbacks tell the majority of the story. Dr. Crippen (Donald Pleasence) is a meek, mild-mannered fellow stuck in a frustrating marriage with a former music hall performer (Coral Browne). Mrs. Crippen is a coarse, overbearing woman, and the doctor starts to have an affair with his much younger typist Ethel (Samantha Eggar). Crippen gives his wife an overdose of sedatives (the film suggests that it was an accident), and after her death, he tells her friends that she has left him and gone to America. The police start to investigate, and a worried Crippen decides to flee with Ethel to North America. While on the boat crossing the Atlantic, Crippen assumes an alias, and Ethel disguises as his young son. But the ship's captain recognizes them, and the pair are taken into custody upon reaching Canada.
I had assumed that DR. CRIPPEN was a film produced by the Baker-Berman team, the same men who made such historical horror films such as JACK THE RIPPER (1959) and THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Baker-Berman had nothing to do with DR. CRIPPEN--the movie was directed by Robert Lynn and written by Leigh Vance. Lynn had done a lot of television, and it shows here--the story at times plays like a PERRY MASON episode set in 1910. The 1.37:1 aspect ratio and the jaunty music score by Ken Jones also contributes to the small-screen feel.
For a movie based on such a notorious murder case, DR. CRIPPEN comes off as rather tame. The more salacious aspects of the case, such as Crippen dismembering his wife and burying her body underneath the floor of their house, are alluded to, but not shown or even thoroughly discussed. At one point it is mentioned that after his wife's death, Crippen was seen going to parties and showing off his true love Ethel, but we are not shown this either (and we should have been). There's a rather dry tone to the proceedings--after watching this film one starts to wonder why Dr. Crippen went down in history as such a nefarious murderer.
Donald Pleasence doesn't play Crippen as hot-headed, angry, or cunning--here the doctor is portrayed as the ultimate milquetoast. The very first time we see Crippen dealing with his wife, with his slumped shoulders and hangdog expression, we know exactly how things are going to play out. Pleasence's Crippen is at all times quiet and tightly controlled, and the viewer waits to see when he is going to snap--but he never does, even when he gets caught, or even while awaiting his execution. Pleasence is well-remembered for his acting eccentricities, but here he tamps down on them and capably shows how Crippen has had all his emotions sucked out of him.
What passion the movie does have comes from Coral Browne as the florid Mrs. Crippen. Browne gets the showiest role, and she plays it to the hilt. What's interesting is that while Mrs. Crippen admits she doesn't think her husband is all that attractive or engaging, she's more annoyed by the fact that he doesn't perform his "husbandly duties" enough. (It's suggested that Crippen is so disgusted by her that he can't perform this function...at least not with her.)
Samantha Eggar is a delicate, almost ethereal Ethel. The script makes the case that Ethel did not know that Crippen killed his wife (in the actual trial she was acquitted of accessory to murder but many crime buffs believe otherwise). Eggar was twenty years younger than Pleasence, and it's hard to figure out why her Ethel is so besotted with Crippen. (Maybe there's hope for guys like me yet.) When Eggar is disguised as Crippen's "son", during their shipboard flight from England, she winds up like every other young attractive actress who tries to pretend to be a boy in a movie or a TV show--she looks even more feminine. Crippen and Ethel's attempt to disguise themselves might seem like silly script writing, but that's actually what they did in real life. Eggar and Pleasence make one of the most unlikeliest romantic couples in screen history. (My friend, prolific audio commentator Troy Howarth, reminded me that Eggar and Pleasence had another unusual onscreen affair in THE UNCANNY.)
Most British films made when DR. CRIPPEN was produced usually have a very strong supporting cast. This film doesn't--about the only notable names are Donald Wolfit and James Robertson Justice. The most impressive name among the film's crew is that of cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, who, due to the generic black & white style of the production, doesn't get a chance to show off his visual talents. (Roeg would have been much better suited to direct the film.)
For most movie or TV adaptations of real-life murder stories, the more outlandish elements of the case are played up or heavily scrutinized. DR. CRIPPEN takes the opposite tack, seemingly wanting to avoid the more prurient aspects of the affair. One can only speculate what a company like Hammer Films could have done with the event.
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Last week a Facebook friend of mine posted photos of her wearing an outfit inspired by a 1935 film called FALSE PRETENSES. During the movie a similar outfit was worn by the leading actress, Irene Ware. Ware is best known for co-starring in two films with Bela Lugosi: CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (1932) and the 1935 THE RAVEN.
Anyone who chooses to dress like Irene Ware in this day and age deserves some type of appreciation, so I figured the least I could do would be to watch, and write a blog post about, FALSE PRETENSES. There is a decent print of the film on YouTube.
FALSE PRETENSES is a low-budget picture distributed by a low-budget production company called Chesterfield. Most of the obscure B movies I have seen from the 30s and 40s are crime stories, mysteries, or thrillers. FALSE PRETENSES is unusual in that it is essentially a romantic comedy.
Irene Ware plays a young woman by the name of Mary, who works as a waitress. Mary wants to make something of herself, and get more out of life. Unfortunately she loses her job due to an annoying would-be suitor. One night on a bridge Mary encounters Kenneth Alden (Sidney Blackmer), an upper-class fellow who has lost most of his fortune. Mary stops Alden from thinking about jumping off the bridge, and she convinces him to take part in a plan that might help them both. The plan is for Alden to introduce Mary to his high-society friends, where she is sure she can snatch a rich husband. In return, Mary will pay Alden a large fee from her newfound wealth for his services as her "agent". As expected, complications ensue. Alden starts to fall for Mary, while she falls for a "businessman" (Russell Hopton) who has secrets of his own.
FALSE PRETENSES is an okay little movie, nothing spectacular. The best thing about it is the main idea of a woman using a "business arrangement" to nab a rich husband. (I'd love to see what directors like Capra, Lubitsch, and Sturges might have done with that plot.) At one point Alden sends Mary to a refinement tutor, but Irene Ware seems to already have more than a sufficient amount of refinement and poise. She also doesn't seem to act like all that much of a golddigger (an actress like Joan Blondell might have portrayed Mary as being somewhat more brazen about the whole scheme).
Irene Ware does come off as appealing, attractive, and very natural. She's more than able to carry this movie, and I think if she had been given the chance to play the lead in a major studio mainstream production made during this time, she would have done very well.
Irene Ware has a bit of cult status due to her two-film association with Bela Lugosi, and FALSE PRETENSES shows that she could easily handle a leading romantic role. But I can't help but wonder what the story would have been like if made by a major studio, with a bigger budget and bigger stars. (For all I know, the story probably was remade or reworked at some point.)
Saturday, January 25, 2020
KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (1968) is made for all those who don't like the "boring parts" of a movie. It's almost wall-to-wall action, and the Euro Western has been released on Region A Blu-ray by Kino.
During the American Civil War, a hardened mercenary named McKay (Chuck Connors) assembles a team of tough renegades to steal a million dollars worth of Union gold for the Confederate government. McKay and his motley crew couldn't care less about one side or the other in the conflict--all they're interested in is the treasure. The group infiltrates a Union stronghold and McKay makes off with the gold, but there's plenty of double-dealing, backstabbing, and deceit before the money can be claimed by anyone.
KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (which is one of the great spaghetti western titles) was directed by Tarantino favorite Enzo G. Castellari. He's no Leone, or Corbucci, but he knows how to put together several tightly edited, rough-and-tumble action sequences. The script (which was co-written by Castellari) dispenses with any type of backstory for the characters--the only personal information we have on them is their names. Usually with a "band of dangerous characters assembled for an impossible mission" movie, a large amount of the running time is dedicated to putting together the team, and getting to know the individuals involved. There's none of that here--the movie begins with a 15-minute pre-credits sequence in which McKay and his team prove their worth by infiltrating a Confederate stronghold.
There's plenty of violence in KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE, but it's more of the traditional Hollywood type. Seemingly hundreds of men are gunned down, but almost no blood and gore are shown, and there's no lingering on dead bodies. The numerous acrobatic stunts (which at times border on the cartoonish) are staged quite impressively. The infamous Euro Western trope of men throwing both arms in the air and spinning around when shot is performed so many times here that it appears almost balletic.
The story does bring to mind THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, with disreputable characters scheming each other over Civil War gold, and a section of the plot taking place inside a Union POW camp. KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE isn't anywhere near as majestic as GBU, but it's not supposed to be. It gives the viewer 100 minutes of enjoyable, escapist, mindless action, with no social or political concerns to get in the way. It's definitely a "guy movie"--there's not one single female character in the entire film!
Chuck Connors is of course best known as the star of THE RIFLEMAN TV show, which the MeTV Network has on permanent rotation. He's nothing like Lucas McCain here--his McKay is the typical spaghetti western character who will do anything to get rich. Connors here seems to enjoy playing such a cut-throat role. The only other actor that gets a chance to impress in the film is Eurocult movie veteran Frank Wolff as the Confederate officer who sends McKay and his crew on the mission--but, as expected, he can't be trusted either.
Kino presents KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE in 2:35.1 widescreen. There's two versions of the movie on this disc--a 99-minute English dubbed version and a 100-minute Italian version (with available English subtitles). Honestly both versions are basically the same. For whatever reason, the English version is visually a bit more colorful and sharper than the Italian one, but both prints look quite good. The sound quality on the English dub (which nicely showcases the vibrant music score by Francesco De Masi) is also a bit better in my estimation. The only extras are a selection of trailers for other Euro Westerns released by Kino, and an audio commentary by Alex Cox (which I have not listened to yet).
KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE won't make most lists of great Euro Westerns, but it is the perfect movie to pop in when you want to forget the real world and watch a series of well-executed action sequences.
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
A few weeks ago I was with my brother at a Half Price Books in Illinois. While going through the soundtracks section I came across the original score, on vinyl, for a 1966 Eurospy film called REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT (original Italian title REQUIEM PER UN AGENTE SEGRETO). It was brand new and only $13, so I picked it up.
The score was by Piero Umiliani, and it's a poppy combo of jazz and lounge, with a hint of John Barry. Most of the music is based around the movie's main theme, a Bond title song wannabe called "Don't Ever Let Me Go", sung by Lydia MacDonald.
I figured that since I had the soundtrack, I might as well watch the film, which I found available on YouTube. Unfortunately the music is much livelier than the movie.
REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT was directed by Sergio Sollima, who was also one of the film's writers, along with Sergio Donati. The two Sergios are best known for their work on Euro Westerns. Most of the production was filmed in Morocco.
The story is set in Tangiers, where a number of American agents are being killed by a criminal society known as...."The Society". A freelance operative named Merrill (Stewart Granger) is sent in to get to the bottom of things. Merrill's investigations lead him to one of the Society's top men (Peter van Eyck), and a few European beauties.
The Eurospy and Euro Western genres have many things in common, including the tendency for individual titles to go beyond their original influences in all sorts of outlandish ways. REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT is very low-key, with no mad schemes to take over the world, or stolen nuclear missiles. There's no over-the-top action sequences--at one point a boat filled with bad guys is blown up, but the viewer only hears the explosion instead of seeing it. In this movie espionage isn't glamorous or exciting, it's a deceitful and grubby affair, almost like a John Le Carre novel. It's a very unusual attitude for a Eurospy film to take.
Stewart Granger's Merrill is no dashing playboy--he's a smug, cynical fellow who's a bit of a jerk. He's not the most captivating person to watch over a 100 minutes. Granger seems a bit over the hill for this type of movie, but he does handle himself quite well in the fight scenes. German actor Peter van Eyck makes a fine villain (he actually would have done better in Granger's role).
The gorgeous Daniela Bianchi, best known as the female lead in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, gets second billing in the main titles...but she's accidentally killed off at about the halfway point in the movie--by Granger, no less! Even before her character's untimely demise Bianchi doesn't get much screen time as the estranged wife of one of the agents killed in Tangiers. She basically has nothing more than an extended cameo. I'm sure she was given prominent billing to suggest that this film had a Bondian aspect to it. I must admit that my interest in the picture waned considerably when I realized Bianchi would no longer be in it.
Sergio Sollima directed a number of unique and interesting spaghetti westerns, but the Eurospy genre (at least with this title) apparently didn't seem to suit him. REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT has a slack pace, and the Moroccan locations are not used to their best advantage (this may have been due to the budget). The best sequence in the story happens when Granger threatens to force a tied-up van Eyck into an incinerator--usually the villain does that to the hero. I've seen a few Eurospy entries that were wilder and more fun than some of the lesser Bond outings. REQUIEM FOR A SECRET AGENT isn't one of those--it plays out like a mediocre elongated episode of THE MAN FROM UNCLE.
Sunday, January 19, 2020
Kino Lorber has put out another series of Euro Westerns on Region A Blu-ray, including THE HELLBENDERS, released in 1967 and produced by Albert Band and directed by Sergio Corbucci. The film is also known as THE CRUEL ONES and I CRUDELI.
Soon after the end of the Civil War, a Union convoy carrying nearly a million dollars of cash is attacked by Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotten) and his three sons. The embittered colonel plans to use the money in a mad scheme to resurrect the Confederacy. The Colonel and his sons travel west, with the money placed in a coffin. Jonas tells all those they encounter that the coffin contains the body of his son-in-law, killed in battle, and he coerces a saloon girl (Norma Bengell, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES) to pose as the grieving widow. The group has to trick their way through Union patrols, trusting townspeople, Mexican bandits, and Native Americans to try and get to their destination--but their biggest obstacles are each other.
THE HELLBENDERS is probably best known for Ennio Morricone's mournful original music score (which I am listening to on vinyl as I write this). Morricone's music (which is credited to "Leo Nichols" on the movie's main titles) perfectly fits the somber mood of the story. This isn't a rip-roaring, wild action-packed tale. It has a downbeat tone, with the only sympathetic character being Norma Bengell's Claire. Colonel Jonas and his sons are not the type of people you want to take a long trip with. The youngest son, Ben (Julian Mateos) seems to have doubts about his father's unrealistic plan, and he falls for Claire, but in the end his loyalty to his family still takes precedence over everything else.
Joseph Cotten might seem out of a place in a spaghetti western, but he gives a fully committed and deadly serious performance as Colonel Jonas. Despite his frequent references to the Almighty, Jonas is a cold-blooded and unyielding individual who will stop at nothing in his futile quest to re-establish "The Cause". The Colonel has to know that all he's really doing is driving his entire family to destruction--but with the defeat of his beloved Confederacy maybe that's what he actually wants to do in the first place.
Sergio Corbucci and cinematographer Enzo Barboni (who would later direct the original TRINITY films) give THE HELLBENDERS an expansive look, with many fine compositions. (In his audio commentary Alex Cox points out that the film has very few interior scenes.) The movie also features spaghetti western legends Aldo Sambrell and Al Mulock in small but important roles. THE HELLBENDERS is a very well made picture, and it's nowhere near as crazed as many Euro Westerns. But the setup is unusual--the Colonel and his sons would be supporting villains in most other movies, and here they are the main characters. There is a climatic twist that makes the Colonel get exactly what he deserves.
Kino presents THE HELLBENDERS in 1.85:1 widescreen, with a colorful and clear transfer. The only audio option is the English track, where thankfully Joseph Cotten dubbed his own voice.
The only extra, other than a collection of trailers for other Euro Westerns released by Kino, is an audio commentary by director Alex Cox. Cox is an expert on Euro Westerns, and his talk is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Cox gives an effective analysis of Sergio Corbucci's style, and he even suggests that THE HELLBENDERS might even be called a masterpiece.
I wouldn't rate THE HELLBENDERS that highly, but it is a well done and unique Euro Western, and it features one of Ennio Morricone's best scores.
Saturday, January 18, 2020
1917 is a brilliantly crafted and very riveting film. If I had seen it in December, I would have named it my favorite movie of 2019.
Director and co-writer Sam Mendes takes the relatively simple story of two British soldiers tasked to deliver an important message through enemy lines on the Western Front in World War One and makes it into a visual epic. The movie has extraordinary production design and meticulous background detail, which allows the viewer to fully experience the mud, blood, gore and devastation of the Great War.
The main star of 1917 is not any of the actors performing in it--it is the redoubtable cinematographer Roger Deakins, who provides a wealth of stunning images.
Much has been made of how 1917 is meant to look as if it is all one continuous shot. I honestly don't think the film needed to be produced in this way...it still would have been powerful without it. But I believe that Sam Mendes wanted to show how, for the regular soldier in any war, the conflict never really stops. Once you are well into watching the movie you don't even notice the effect (at least, I didn't). The only people that might be distracted by the lack of cuts are those who watch nothing but overly-edited action movies.
For all of 1917's visual splendor, it must be pointed out that the actors playing the two main characters, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, acquit themselves very well. The film also features cameos by Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
There are many who have compared 1917 to Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK. There is some justification in this--both films are about ordinary 20th Century British soldiers who face overwhelming obstacles in France. Some have said that 1917 is like DUNKIRK due to the fact that technical virtuosity outweighs characterization. 1917 and DUNKIRK are not meant to be nuanced character studies, they are films designed to enable audiences to experience incredible historical circumstances. 1917's story could have easily been told without any dialogue at all.
I'm not very much influenced by any modern movie awards, but 1917 deserves any prizes it gets. It absolutely is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.
Friday, January 17, 2020
One of the latest Shout Factory Hammer Blu-ray releases is DEMONS OF THE MIND, a film produced in 1971. This was one of the few Hammer movies I had not yet seen, until I purchased the Blu-ray. It doesn't have the most sterling reputation, and it is a downbeat, puzzling, and at times disturbing affair. But it also looks much more stylish and expansive compared to most Hammer titles made during the same period.
Those wanting a comprehensive history of the film are encouraged to read issue #31 of Richard Klememsen's magazine LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS, which gives all the information one would want to know about it. The original story came from the film's producer Frank Godwin and screenwriter Christopher Wicking, and it was called BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD. Godwin convinced Hammer it was based on an old Bavarian legend (it wasn't). The original story contained a werewolf subplot, which Hammer asked to be removed.
As usual with any script written by Christopher Wicking, the story is at times hard to follow, with various characters and incidents popping in and out which seemingly have little to do with the main plot. In 1830s Bavaria, a Baron Zorn (Robert Hardy) keeps his young son and daughter (Shane Briant and Gillian Hills) under lock & key at his vast remote estate. The Baron is being treated and advised by a strange doctor named Falkenberg (Patrick Magee). The Baron is convinced that he and his children are cursed by their hereditary bloodline. Meanwhile, a number of young girls from the nearby village have been murdered. Dr. Falkenberg believes that Zorn's condition results from "demons of the mind"--mental illness. The Doctor is right, but not in the way that he thinks.
It's hard to give an accurate synopsis for DEMONS OF THE MIND, simply because there are so many confusing elements in the picture. The script touches upon sexual aberration, incest, child abuse, mental instability, and the conflict between science and superstition. Needless to say, this is not a fun Saturday afternoon monster flick. Despite the Gothic trappings, it is very adult, with much blood and nudity. I haven't even touched upon Paul Jones (the former lead singer of Manfred Mann), who plays the movie's apparent male hero. (In the best Hammer tradition, the young male romantic lead doesn't accomplish very much.) And I haven't yet mentioned distinguished British actor Michael Hordern, who plays a mad, mumbling assumed priest who wanders in and out of the tale. The movie has a number of byways that might have been interesting on their own, but they never really coalesce into a satisfying whole.
Nevertheless, DEMONS OF THE MIND does have an impressive visual style to it, due to the direction of Peter Sykes and the cinematography of Arthur Grant. Sykes makes great use of actual locations, such as Wykehurst Place, which stood in for the Baron's manor. The forest in good old Black Park near Pinewood was used once again in a Hammer film, but somehow in DEMONS OF THE MIND it seems fresh and subtly different. This film doesn't have the cramped and cut-rate look of SCARS OF DRACULA or HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN.
DEMONS OF THE MIND also does not have the typical Hammer cast. Producer Frank Godwin didn't want to use the usual Hammer actors. He was even thinking of a big mainstream name to play the Baron, such as James Mason or Paul Scofield. Robert Hardy wasn't on their level, and his portrayal of the Baron has come under criticism. Hardy does seem at times to be a bit hammy, and the Baron's actions do seem rather inconsistent, but it has to be said that the character is mentally unstable. (Personally, I think John Carson would have made a great Baron Zorn.) The idiosyncratic Patrick Magee, as expected, steals every scene as Dr. Falkenberg (Magee would have made a great Baron too). The film's best performance is given by Shane Briant in his Hammer debut as the Baron's son, a confused man-child. English Gothic veterans Kenneth J. Warren and Virginia Wetherell have small but important roles, and the aforementioned Michael Hordern gets attention with his showy part, even though it seems his character wandered into the story from another movie.
DEMONS OF THE MIND didn't make much money or get much attention during its original theatrical release. For years it was one of the most obscure Hammer horrors--I never remember it being shown on commercial or even cable TV in my area. The movie's reputation seems to have grown a bit over the years. I wouldn't say I loved the movie after seeing it for the first time....but I was more impressed with it than I thought it would be. It's not a cheesy horror flick, it is a serious, adult Gothic drama that is sometimes hard to follow. A better structured script, and perhaps a more assured lead performance might have made the film one of the better Hammer productions of the early 1970s.
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
During my teenage years I went through an Agatha Christie phase, where I started reading most of her novels. I also started watching the various movie and TV adaptations of her work. I haven't watched all the adaptations--especially the television ones, because there's been so many of them.
The all-time best movie based on the work of Agatha Christie, in my opinion, is still the 1974 MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Albert Finney played Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in that story. DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) and EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982) followed, with Peter Ustinov playing Poirot in both features.
Ustinov also played Poirot in three American TV movies made in the 1980s (unfortunately these stories were also set in the 1980s, and have very little of the Christie touch to them). The actor appeared as the character for the last time in the 1988 theatrical film APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH.
I had never seen APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH. For some reason (I assume rights issues) the movie is not available on American home video. I recently discovered that I had access to it through Xfinity OnDemand. It was a dud at the box office, and it has been stated on a few sources that the production was a total bomb.
The movie is based on the 1938 Christie novel of the same name. I'm sure I read that novel long ago, but I certainly don't remember the exact details of it. A quick check on Wikipedia revealed that the movie's script and the book are almost exactly the same (which is quite rare when it comes to Christie adaptations).
The story revolves around the Boynton family, which is under the thumb of their stepmother, the overbearing Mrs. Boynton (Piper Laurie). After inheriting her late husband's fortune (due to blackmailing the family lawyer into burning a second will), the woman demands that the entire family take a trip to Europe and the Middle East. While in British-held Palestine, the family encounters the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (this should immediately tip anyone off to the fact that someone's going to wind up dead). Mrs. Boynton winds up offending nearly everybody, which leaves plenty of suspects when she is found dead. As expected, Poirot manages to figure it all out.
APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH with made by the Cannon company, who were best known for their 1980s cheesy action flicks. The movie was co-written, produced, and directed by Michael Winner, who had made plenty of violent thrillers of his own, including the original DEATH WISH. The idea of Cannon and Michael Winner making an Agatha Christie movie seems a bit strange, but the mystery author's name has always gotten attention from audiences.
The final result isn't the bomb that some have said it was. It's not an ineptly made film--it uses many picturesque Israeli locations, the costume design is well done, and Winner does try to inject some mild visual flair. The story, however, is a bit too easygoing and basic. There's no sense of dread or menace. There's only two murders in the entire film, and Mrs. Boynton gets offed not until 45 minutes in. The characters are the predictable types one finds in nearly every classic murder mystery--greedy stepmother, arrogant aristocrat, duplicitous lawyer, etc. There's plenty of fine actors here, but the roles are so simple that none of the performers really get a chance to shine. The only edge in the story is provided by Piper Laurie as Mrs. Boynton.
The other major members of the cast are Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Carrie Fisher, Hayley Mills, Jenny Seagrove, and David Soul. An interesting group, but not as star-studded as most big-screen Christie adaptations. (Bacall and Gielgud were both in the '74 MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.) Peter Ustinov appears somewhat tired in his last go-round as Poirot, but he does get to make a few humorous observations. He also has an unerring ability to be in the right place and in the right time to overhear vital conversations (one of the characters in the story even tells him this).
APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH is an okay film, but there's nothing really about it that makes it stand out from all the many other Agatha Christie adaptations. It's a very standard murder mystery, and it's perfect for those who want to relax and wind down for 100 minutes.
Sunday, January 5, 2020
One of the non-political things trending the most on the internet this week has been the new BBC TV adaptation of DRACULA. I haven't seen any of it yet--from what I've heard about it, I'd probably just be whining and moaning over it.
I did happen to view another radical interpretation of Bram Stoker's iconic character this weekend--a 1974 British film which is titled OLD DRACULA in the United States. (The British title is VAMPIRA.) The American title attempted to cash in on the success of Mel Brooks' magnificent YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. OLD DRACULA isn't anywhere near YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as a comedy, or as an overall film.
Count Dracula is played by David Niven, and the late 20th Century hasn't been too kind to him. He has opened up his castle in Transylvania to tourists, and his beloved wife, Countess Vampira, has been in a state of suspended animation for 50 years, due to taking the blood of a "poisoned peasant". A group of four Playboy playmates comes to the castle for a photo shoot, and the Count, with the help of his manservant, takes blood samples from each of the girls, hoping that one will be the proper match to revive Vampira. One of the playmates is African-American, and in the process of revival Vampira herself turns black (and is now played by Teresa Graves). The Count isn't really put off by this, but still decides to try and turn Vampira back to her original state by flying to England and getting more blood from the playmates. Various complications ensue, until Dracula and his wife become compatible in an unexpected way.
OLD DRACULA was written by one-time LAUGH-IN regular Jeremy Lloyd. I have a feeling Lloyd wasn't much of a English Gothic fan, for the while the story has plenty of opportunities to spoof the genre, it avoids this and instead goes for plenty of labored gags. There's a number of lines about "getting a bite" and "having a drink", but nothing that makes you laugh out loud. The script also doesn't seem to know at times if it really is an all-out comedy.
The story also doesn't know how to portray Dracula. David Niven plays the Count as "David Niven"--a charming, upper-class English fellow who reacts to everything with a knowing bemusement. (Niven's Dracula is about as Eastern European as Clint Eastwood.) There's no sense of menace from Niven's Count, even when he is supposed to be menacing. At times it feels as if the movie wants the viewer to sympathize with the Count, such as when he takes a wistful stroll through nighttime London and winds up saving a young woman from a mugging (the woman is played by Carol Cleveland, known for her work with Monty Python). But this Count also winds up lowering one of the main characters into a rat-infested well. We don't know whether to think of this Count as a joke, or mildly amusing, or a sad old man whose time has passed.
The British title of this film, VAMPIRA, is quite apt, since Teresa Graves is the most charismatic person in the film, and gets to play the most interesting character. Her revived Countess is hot-to-trot, and she's quite willing to partake in all that the culture of the 1970s has to offer. She even goes to see a Jim Brown movie! She also gets to call Dracula a "jive turkey", certainly the first (and no doubt the last) time that Stoker's Count has been given this label. The movie would have done much better to focus on her.
Teresa Graves as Vampira
The supporting cast of OLD DRACULA has plenty of geek culture notables, with featured roles for three Hammer-connected actresses--Linda Hayden (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA), Jennie Linden (NIGHTMARE), and Veronica Carlson (DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE). Hayden is bitten by Dracula--and subsequently dispatched by him--within the first fifteen minutes of the film. Linden plays a non-comedic role as a woman organizing the playmates photo shoot (she's the one who gets lowered in the rat-infested well). Veronica is one of the playmates, but other than looking gorgeous as usual, she gets very little to do, and her lovely voice is even dubbed over. One would think that with two actresses who had starred in other Dracula movies in the cast, some sort of in-joke would have referenced this, but it never happens. (Luan Peters, who appeared in a few Hammer films, also shows up here for literally a few seconds.)
Freddie Jones, another Hammer veteran, also appears--he's sitting next to the Count and his wife while they are in an airplane flying to London. Jones wears a horrible toupee, and he's using an American accent--at first I didn't even recognize him. Bernard Bresslaw also has a small role.
OLD DRACULA doesn't appear to have a low budget--in fact it appears to have more money spent on it than most "real" horror movies made around the same period. It's competently directed by Clive Donner, but instead of being funny or entertaining, it comes off as weird and strange. The climax features a disco party in which shots of people dancing go on...and on...and on. The ending also has David Niven wind up in blackface, of all things....and then the end credits show more of Vampira dancing the night away (which is maybe just as well, since she steals the film).
OLD DRACULA does prove that no matter what people say about any new adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, there's been plenty of bizarre things done to the Count over the years. It's not an unwatchable mess, but it is one of those "What the heck were they thinking when they made it??" movies. The blaxplotation elements surrounding Teresa Graves as Vampira might make a few folks cringe in today's world, but if the script had gone all out in that direction, it might have been more memorable.
Saturday, January 4, 2020
CRUCIBLE OF HORROR is the American title for this 1969 British production. In England it was released as THE CORPSE. The American title makes one expect a blood & thunder Gothic chiller--but it is actually a contemporary psychological suspense tale.
CRUCIBLE OF HORROR centers around the Eastwood family. Walter, the father, (played by Michael Gough) is a very uptight and fastidious businessman who mentally and physically abuses his wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) and teenage daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney). Son Rupert (Simon Gough, the real-life son of Michael) takes after his father. The Eastwood women conspire to kill Walter, and while he is off on a hunting trip, the ladies surprise him at the family cottage and appear to poison him. But Walter seemingly isn't dead--or is it that the Eastwood women are so emotionally scarred that they have no idea what is real and what isn't?
This movie is not filled with gory or violent shocks. It's a story that takes its time, with director Viktors Ritelis building up the relationships in the dysfunctional Eastwood family. Much of the first part of the film consists of some painfully awkward family dinners (these sequences have a darkly humorous edge to them as well). Daughter Jane appears to be rebelling against her father's controlling behavior, while wife Edith appears to have all the life sucked out of her--she moves about like a zombie when she's not hiding away and creating disturbing artwork. The elder Eastwood is totally in charge, a man who expects things to be done exactly the way he wants them (he's the type of person who still wears a suit and tie even while at home after a day's work).
One would expect an actor like Michael Gough to really go to town with a character like Walter Eastwood, but this isn't the wild and wacky Gough we've seen in the Herman Cohen flicks. Gough as Walter is cold, cynical, and incisive, without going off the rails. Walter Eastwood is far more threatening than Gough's usual horror movie characters because he's a person that could actually exist. This is one of Michael Gough's best film performances.
CRUCIBLE OF HORROR might be frustrating to first-time viewers, because there is plenty of ambiguity in the second half of the story. If you like movies that make perfect absolute sense, this one is not for you. I'm not going to reveal how the movie ends, and even if I did, how one sees the ending depends on one's interpretation of it. For me personally, I felt that since most of the story is seen through the eyes of Edith and Jane, one must not take at face value what they think they are experiencing--these are two women who have serious mental issues. But that's just my way of analyzing it.
While doing research on this film I came across a few reviews that suggested that it had a feminist slant to it. One could certainly come to that conclusion, especially from a 21st Century viewpoint. I found it to be an effective example of how much damage one family member can do to others, without the presentation having to go to extremes. We all love Michael Gough's more outlandish film portrayals, but CRUCIBLE OF HORROR shows just how fine of an actor he really was.
*NOTE: Simon Gough and Sharon Gurney married each other in real life.