Friday, December 31, 2021

My Top Five Blu-rays Of 2021


It's the end of another screwed-up year. But hey, I did get to actually attend some baseball games....and I even went to a movie convention, the Monster Bash Conference in Pennsylvania. And I spent plenty of money (as usual) on home video releases of obscure films. 

So it's time for my yearly Top Five Blu-rays list. For 2021 three of the entries on it are considered examples of "Euro Gothic" cinema, and four of the entries come from two companies, Severin and Arrow. 


A fantastic set, and a must for fans of the iconic actor. Five of Lee's lesser known films, all made in Europe, magnificently restored and uncut, along with a ton of extras. I wrote a blog post on this set in June. 

2. MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN from Arrow Video

I haven't written a blog post on this yet--I will eventually--because I still haven't got through everything in this release. MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960) is a very eerie Euro Gothic--and Arrow presents FOUR different versions of the film! The "main" version has been brilliantly restored--the color is absolutely sumptuous--and this has a boatload of extras as well. 


None of the films in this set are what I would call great, or even very good--but the presentation is top notch, with all the bells & whistles one now expects from any Arrow release. I wrote a full blog post on this in September, and individual posts on each of the films in the last few months. 

4. AN ANGEL FOR SATAN from Severin

The last Italian Gothic starring the Queen of that genre, Barbara Steele, finally gets an official major home video release, and with an audio commentary featuring the lady herself. My blog post on this was written in November. 

5. DOCTOR X from Warner Archive

The good folks behind last year's stupendous Blu-rays of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN gift us with another amazing restoration job, this time on one of the wildest Pre-Codes...and we get both the color and black and white versions. My review on this was posted in April. 

Saturday, December 25, 2021



BEAT GIRL (released in the U.S. under the title WILD FOR KICKS) is a 1960 British film concerning teenage rebellion and rock and roll music. It is of interest to fans of English fantastic films due to the cast, which includes Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Gillian Hills (DEMONS OF THE MIND), Claire Gordon (KONGA), Shirley Anne Field (THESE ARE THE DAMNED), Nigel Green (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS), and Delphi Lawrence (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH). 

Gillian Hills plays Jennifer, the sullen and pouty teenage daughter of a successful architect (David Farrar). Jennifer's father returns from a long trip away with a new, young attractive French wife (Noelle Adam), which makes the girl's attitude even worse. Jennifer spends most of her time at a cafe with her beatnik friends. Across the street from this cafe is a strip club, and Jennifer, by happenstance, finds out that one of the dancers who works there (Delphi Lawrence) knew her stepmother. Jennifer goes to the club, hoping to get more information on her stepmother's past, and she attracts the attention of the club's owner (Christopher Lee). Jennifer's machinations cause problems for plenty of folks. 

BEAT GIRL isn't a social study about angry youth--it's a exploitation movie all the way, with teenagers acting up and performances by exotic dancers. (There's even a few flashes of nudity.) The musical aspects are supplied by a score from John Barry (his first complete score for a film, featuring his jazz band), and a couple songs by British pop star Adam Faith, who plays one of Jennifer's friends. (As an actor, Faith isn't the most expressive guy in the world.) 

Most of the "teenagers" look older than they are supposed to be (Gillian Hills actually was in her mid-teens), and the beatnik dialogue they are given to recite is rather stilted. A lot of the acting in this film is stilted as well. The script tries to suggest that the attitudes of Jennifer and her friends are due to a national postwar malaise, but the kids come off as whiny and lazy instead of dangerous. Oliver Reed has only a small role as one of the teenagers at the cafe, but whenever he is in a scene he always goes out of his way to draw attention to himself. Shirley Anne Field, as another member of the cafe group, gets to sing a song called "It's Legal"....which is ironic, because her dialogue is dubbed by another actress. Noelle Adam, as Jennifer's glamorous stepmother, has such a thick French accent that for the most part it's hard to understand what she is saying. 

The scenes at the strip club are far more interesting than Jennifer's problems at home. Christopher Lee could have easily made the strip club owner an obvious slimeball, but instead he underplays the role, giving the man a quiet menace. (When Lee is informed that Jennifer is underage, his interest in the girl is increased.) We get to see the busty Claire Gordon in a French maid outfit, and Delphi Lawrence gets attention as the bitter dancer who is jealous of Lee's attentions toward Jennifer. Nigel Green provides some humor into the role of Lee's smarmy associate at the club. 

Gillian Hills and Christopher Lee in BEAT GIRL

BEAT GIRL was directed by French director Edmond T. Greville, who would work with Lee soon again in a remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC. One wonders how realistic the movie looked even back in 1960. Much of the melodramatics seem silly today, but the cast is worth watching, and John Barry's score is quite good. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021



THE FROZEN DEAD is a 1966 British horror film, written and directed by Herbert J. Leder. It's a title I finally caught up with the other day, after seeing various stills from it in books and magazines over the years. The movie has many plot elements that are ripe with possibilities, but overall it's rather disappointing. 

The story is set in contemporary times. Dana Andrews plays Dr. Norberg, a Nazi scientist --yes, you read that correctly--who, for the last 20 years since WWII ended, has been working on reviving frozen human beings. What is left of the Nazi party has been funding Norberg's experiments, and they have even set him up at a large palatial estate outside of London. (Apparently leftover Nazis have plenty of money to spend on wacky projects.) Norberg's experiments have not been very successful--he has revived a group of German soldiers, including his own brother, but the men are imbeciles, locked in a dungeon-like room on the estate. Norberg surmises that he needs a living, functioning human brain to study. Norberg's young niece Jean (Anna Palk) and her friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck) unexpectedly arrive for a visit, and very soon after, Norberg's bungling assistant Karl (Alan Tilvern) kills Elsa, giving Norberg the opportunity to remove the victim's head and use her brain. Norberg and Karl try to convince Jean that Elsa abruptly left without telling her, but the woman is suspicious, and she attempts to get a newly-arrived American doctor (Phillip Gilbert) to help her find out what is going on. Elsa's head still retains a spark of individual humanity, and she tries to mentally contact Jean. Eventually Norberg and his Nazi buddies get what they deserve. 

The first thing one must deal with when discussing THE FROZEN DEAD is the idea of casting Dana Andrews--an actor about as American as they come--as a Nazi scientist. There were plenty of fine character actors at this time in England who would have been much better casting. I assume Andrews was picked to give the film a star name (albeit a fading name), but he seems ill at ease in this role, despite his attempt at a German accent. Anton Diffring would have been perfect here--he also might have given the role a bit more of a nasty attitude. At various times in the story Andrews' Norberg complains to his Nazi overseers about their methods, which comes off as unintentionally funny--what did he expect?? 

Dr. Norberg not only has a fully equipped secret laboratory, he has a wall of disembodied arms, and a giant freezer stocked with Nazis on ice (and still wearing their SS uniforms). The freezer has a full-length glass window to look through, and it resembles a supermarket display. With the Nazis-on-ice and the mentally unbalanced group in the cellar, one expects all these soldiers to eventually break loose and cause havoc, but they never do. The script has far more talk than action, and Leder's leaden direction doesn't help matters. 

Thankfully we don't get to see what happens to transform Elsa into a living brain, but the result is quite unsettling. Elsa's head is on a table, hooked up with tubes and electrodes, and constantly bathed in a eerie bluish light. It's even more grotesque than the living head in THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE, and Elsa's ability to use her mind to affect others is also used in that earlier movie. A big problem is that Elsa has very little onscreen time before she is transformed, so the viewer doesn't get a chance to know her as a character. 

Dana Andrews and head in THE FROZEN DEAD

Anna Palk is okay as Jean--at one point she actually wanders around wearing a nightgown while holding a candle--but she's not as memorable as any of the Hammer scream queens. Just about all normal leading men in any British horror film made during this period are unmemorable, but Phillip Gilbert is particularly so--he acts as if he's in a sitcom. When Dana Andrews reveals Elsa's living head to Gilbert, instead of reacting with shock or revulsion, he has a goofy grin on his face. The rest of the supporting cast is quite bland, with the exception of a very young Edward Fox, who gets little to do as Andrews' deranged and mute brother. 

The boring cast is one main reason why THE FROZEN DEAD doesn't live up to expectations. The movie tries to be in the Hammer or Amicus manner, but it doesn't have the notable performers those companies used to uplift their fantastic stories. The sets and production design are all right, but not much creative use is made of them. Don Banks, who worked for Hammer a number of times, contributes a fine music score, but many of the most important sequences in the story are without musical backing. 

If THE FROZEN DEAD had been made ten or twenty years later, I'm sure it would have been far more lewd and explicit--whether it would have been a better movie is another matter. There are a number of directors at the time who were familiar with this type of material, and would have been able to make something more out of it, such as Freddie Francis, John Gilling, and, dare I say it--Jess Franco? 

When one finds out about a movie that features disembodied parts and frozen Nazis, one expects it to be diverting--but for the most part THE FROZEN DEAD is as stiff as the SS troops in Dr. Norberg's lab. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021



THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) is one of a group of films Boris Karloff made under a contract with  Warner Bros. in the late 1930s. With horror movies temporarily on the wane, Warners gave Karloff character actor parts. THE INVISIBLE MENACE may sound like an imaginative thriller, but it's actually an underwhelming murder mystery, based on an unsuccessful play. 

The story is set on a military base named Powder Island. A dopey soldier (Eddie Craven) sneaks his ditzy new bride (Marie Wilson) onto the island, and while trying to find a place to hide they discover the mutilated body of a murdered man. The base is shut down while the authorities try to find the culprit. 

THE INVISIBLE MENACE runs only about 55 minutes, but even that's a bit too long for this tale. It's a very talky movie, and it really isn't all that different from the Mr. Wong mysteries Karloff would soon be starring in for Monogram. What does help THE INVISIBLE MENACE is a cast made up of veterans such as Regis Toomey, Henry Kolker, and Charles Trowbridge. They give some vitality to the proceedings. 

Karloff plays a suspicious-looking fellow who goes by the name of Jevries.  Jevries is on the base as a civilian contractor, and it is revealed that he not only knew the murder victim, but had a good reason to kill him. This is shown in a flashback set in Haiti, which tries to gain some sympathy for Karloff's character, despite the fact that he's accused of mistreating the natives. Boris spends the entire film wearing a forlorn, hangdog expression, which isn't surprising, considering what his character goes through....but you have to wonder if the actor was showing how he personally felt about being in such a inconsequential movie. 

Karloff, as expected, becomes the main suspect, which means, if you go by old movie rules, he didn't do it. (If you ever see a movie murder mystery with Karloff or Bela Lugosi, be assured that they are never guilty.) A special investigator flown to the island to help solve the case (Cy Kendall) knows about Jevries' past, and he's obsessed with charging the poor guy with the much so that he even resorts to physically abusing Karloff. Boris does have a major impact on the climax. 

THE INVISIBLE MENACE was produced by Bryan Foy, directed by John Farrow, and the screenplay was by Crane Wilbur. These three men did the same jobs on the much better WEST OF SHANGHAI, which was the film that Karloff had starred in at Warners the year before. There's an attempt to inject some atmosphere in THE INVISIBLE MENACE by having the action take place on a foggy night at the island, but this also may have been a way to hide the production's low budget. The story here is just too thin to make the film more than just a below-average programmer. 

Boris Karloff is the only reason for anyone to have any interest in THE INVISIBLE MENACE. Hardcore Karloff fans will be disappointed, though....his whiny, put-upon character isn't very appealing. 


Sunday, December 12, 2021



THE MUTATIONS, filmed in 1972 and released in 1974, is a very weird British horror film that brings to mind the crazy low-budget thriller movies made in the 1940s and 50s. I saw it for the first time on the Xfinity TCM app. 

A quietly sinister professor named Nolter (Donald Pleasence) lectures to a group of bored-looking students at a college in London. His talk is about his belief that a new species of humans, with plant-like capabilities, can be created through induced mutation. Like all horror movie scientists, Nolter does more than talk--at his impressive estate, he conducts experiments on unwilling victims to prove his theories. Nolter's subjects are provided to him by a hulking fellow named Lynch (Tom Baker), who has severe facial disfigurement due to a glandular condition. Ironically Lynch works at a nearby sideshow, which features a number of performers who also have physical disabilities. Lynch helps Nolter in the hope that the man will cure his condition, but some of the doctor's experiments are starting to cause trouble, while the sideshow performers are getting suspicious about what is going on. 

I had seen several stills from THE MUTATIONS in various books and articles over the years, and I assumed that it was a tawdry, seedy example of early 1970s British exploitation cinema. The film does have many exploitative aspects, but it isn't as lewd as nasty as it tries to be. The story has a very slow pace, with sequences that seem to go on just a bit too long. 

Donald Pleasence is surprisingly modulated as Nolter--he has a quiet, deliberate way of speaking, and he acts more like an accountant than a mad medico trying to turn people into plants. Tom Baker gets the best role as Lynch, an outcast from society who does evil deeds while wanting desperately to be normal. The makeup used on Baker here resembles how Charles Laughton looked in the 1939 THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Baker also wears a brown overcoat, scarf, and wide-brimmed hat....did he remember this costume when he was hired to play Doctor Who not long after this film was made? 

As usual in this type of film, the "normal" male leads (Brad Harris and Scott Antony) are unmemorable, while Scream Queen eye candy is provided by Julie Ege (THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES) and Jill Haworth (IT!). Not only do we get to see Ege in the bathtub, she also winds up naked on Dr. Nolter's operating table. Michael Dunn (THE WILD, WILD, WEST) is in charge of the sideshow, and one gets the feeling he wasn't too comfortable being in this movie. 

It's fitting that a future Doctor Who is in this production, since the plants and creatures created by Dr. Nolter have a rubbery, cheap-TV episode aspect to them. (The creature that figures in the climax looks like a giant walking spinach.) Nolter also has a contraption that could pass for a death ray machine in a 1930s Hollywood serial. Plenty of real-life time-lapse film is used of plants growing (this gets old very quickly), and Basil Kirchin provides an avant-garde music score that is more annoying than suspenseful. 

One shouldn't expect a sensitive portrayal of the afflicted in THE MUTATIONS. If the script (co-written by producer Robert D. Weinbach) was trying to show a parallel between those who are forced into working at a sideshow and Dr. Nolter's creations, it doesn't come off. There's a long sequence where we are treated to the sideshow performers' "acts", and at one point these unfortunate folks even stage a birthday party, where the wedding banquet in Tod Browning's FREAKS is directly referenced. 

The biggest head-scratching fact about THE MUTATIONS is that it was directed by distinguished cinematographer Jack Cardiff. (Was he trying to go down the Freddie Francis route?) The film certainly looks good (the print shown on TCM was fantastic). In fact, the film might have looked too good--most of the outdoor scenes were shot during the day, and Nolter's laboratory is brightly lit. The clear detail makes the makeup effects look even more mediocre. 

THE MUTATIONS is a obscure 1970s British horror film that I finally crossed off my "haven't seen" list. It's strange to be sure--but I felt it might have worked better if it had a bit more gusto. Herman Cohen and Michael Gough would have taken a story like this and really gone off the rails with it. 

Monday, December 6, 2021



Last week, I had a meeting with a financial advisor who works at my bank. He asked me about my hobbies and interests, and I told how much of a film buff I was. He mentioned that on Halloween he had screened THE DYBBUK, a movie I was aware of but had never seen. Ironically, Turner Classic Movies last night showed THE DYBBUK, and it was an uncut and restored version of the film at that. I made use of the opportunity to see it for the first time. 

THE DYBBUK, made in Poland in 1937, is based on various Jewish folk tales (the dialogue used in the movie is Yiddish). Long ago in Eastern Europe, two friends named Sender and Nisn meet during a religious holiday. Both men have pregnant wives at home, and the two come to an agreement that if one of the women has a boy, and the other has a girl, the children will marry one another in the future. Sender goes home to find his wife has died in childbirth (she had a girl), while Nisn drowns on his way back (his wife had a boy). Sender grows rich over the years, and when his daughter (named Leah) turns 18, he plans to find her a husband, having forgotten about the agreement. Meanwhile, Nisn's son Khonnon arrives at the town Sender lives in, and becomes friendly with the man and his daughter. Sender has no idea who Khonnon really is, while the young man and Leah fall in love. Sender does not think Khonnon is good enough for Leah, and he arranges a marriage for her. Khonnon starts to study black magic in order to improve his situation, and when he finds out that Leah will be married to someone else, he calls upon Satan--but he winds up dying. Just at the moment that Leah is to be married, she is taken over by Khonnen, who has become a "dybbuk"--the spirit of a wandering soul. Sender takes his daughter to a powerful rabbi to separate the spirit of Khonnen from her, but the love between the two young people is even more powerful.

I'm certainly no expert on pre-WWII Polish cinema, but I was quite impressed by THE DYBBUK. The production design, cinematography, and editing are up to basic Hollywood standards of the time. The film certainly does not look cheap. Director Michal Waszynski goes into great detail showing the religious and social traditions of the characters involved. The film is a bit slow at times (the full version is 125 minutes), and the overall acting is very melodramatic, but this is, after all, a fable set in the past. 

Waszynski uses the supernatural elements here in a restrained and subtle manner. There are a few expressionist flourishes, such as a couple of graveyard scenes. The most striking character is an unnamed mysterious traveler who suddenly appears and disappears throughout the story. This sinister-looking fellow makes dour pronouncements on whatever is happening when he does show up. The creepiest sequence in THE DYBBUK is when a group of poor villagers "dance" before Leah's wedding. The group gyrates about as if they are possessed by demons. 

While watching THE DYBBUK I felt at times I was watching a semi-documentary about a unique culture. A number of folk songs are sung by the characters, and the importance of the various ceremonies that are performed throughout the story is firmly established. 

THE DYBBUK is not a full-fledged horror film--it's a tragic love story filled with mystical elements. It's also even more tragic when one realizes that many of the cast & crew who worked on it were later mudered during the Holocaust. 

Lili Liliana as Leah in THE DYBBUK

Sunday, December 5, 2021



Universal's 1935 feature THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD is based on an unfinished work by Charles Dickens (the author died while in the middle of writing it). It contains a number of elements familiar to classic Universal horror, but it is a mystery melodrama, with a climax whipped up by a number of Hollywood screenwriters (including genre notable John L. Balderston). Kino gives it a much-needed official release on Blu-ray. 

The story, set in 1864 England, concerns John Jasper (Claude Rains), who is the publicly respected choirmaster of his small town. Jasper, however, is an opium addict, and he is obsessed with one of his music students, teenager Rosa Bud (Heather Angel). Rosa has been betrothed to Jasper's nephew Edwin Drood (David Manners) since childhood, but the two, though friendly, don't really love each other. Rosa is more attracted to the rebellious Neville (Douglass Montgomery). After a stormy Christmas Eve, Edwin disappears....and Jasper takes advantage of the bad blood between his nephew and Neville to accuse the latter of being responsible. Neville goes into hiding to investigate, while Jasper's mental state eventually leads to the solution to the mystery of Edwin Drood. 

This film was directed by Stuart Walker, who had already directed a Dickens adaptation for Universal--GREAT EXPECTATIONS in 1934. EDWIN DROOD has plenty of moody mid-Victorian atmosphere, and the cast of eccentric Dickensian characters is ably portrayed by a number of English performers, such as Francis L. Sullivan, Walter Kingsford, E.E. Clive, Forrester Harvey, J.M. Kerrigan, and Zeffie Tillbury as "The Opium Woman". 

Claude Rains gets a great showcase in this tale as the unstable John Jasper. The movie opens with Jasper having an opium-induced nightmare (which is a hint and a half on how the story is going to go). With his darkened hair, pale countenance, and black wardrobe, Rains resembles a vampire, and just with a gesture or a look the actor is able to put over to the audience what schemes Jasper is up to. David Manners and Douglass Montgomery were both the same type of actors--lightweight leading men--but I have to say the duo do some of their best film work here. Heather Angel is a bit too delicate as Rosa Bud--I felt that Valerie Hobson, who plays the role of Neville's sister, would have been a better choice. Hobson doesn't have much to do, but she still shows more spirit and screen presence than Angel does. 

The combination of production design, cinematography (by George Robinson), and a fine ensemble cast makes THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD an excellent, enjoyable film. This title seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, due to the fact that it is not a all-out horror story, but there's plenty here for fans of Universal's Golden Age to appreciate. 

Kino's Region A Blu-ray of this film looks quite sharp at times. The main extra is a new audio commentary by David Del Valle, who discusses his love for early 1930s Universal thrillers and his admiration for Claude Rains. He also goes into detail about his multiple meetings with David Manners, when the former actor was an elderly man. 

I'm very pleased that Kino has given so many seemingly forgotten Universal releases from the 1930s and 40s a home on Blu-ray. The present-day Universal is still churning out their famous titles over and over again....but there's an entire catalog of lesser-known films the studio has control of that haven't received a proper home video release, and they have charms and revelations of their own. Here's hoping that Kino has more obscure items coming from the Universal canon. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021



THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946) was made toward the end of what is called Universal's "Silver Age" of thrillers and chillers. The movie is not a sequel to the studio's Sherlock Holmes entry THE SPIDER WOMAN, despite having the same star, Gale Sondergaard. 

A young woman named Jean (Brenda Joyce) returns to her small home town to take a job as a caretaker to a wealthy blind woman with the spectacular name of Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard). Jean starts to experience weird events at Zenobia's creepy old house, and the intimidating-looking servant (Rondo Hatton) doesn't help matters. Jean learns that Zenobia is conducting bizarre experiments in order to get revenge on the local townsfolk. 

I had never seen THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, and I must admit that it is a lackluster affair. The production feels like a throwaway--it is only an hour long--and it does not have the usual elements that are beloved by Universal classic horror fans. Brenda Joyce (who was also at the time playing Jane in the Tarzan movie series) isn't very charismatic, and while Gale Sondergaard is fine as always, her character is underwhelming. Rondo Hatton has very little to do, other than just appear and look like....Rondo Hatton. (During one scene it seems that Hatton has feelings for Jean, but this never goes anywhere.) Unlike most of his other Universal appearances there is no attempt here to bulk up Hatton or make him look bigger than he was, which negates his supposedly fearsome presence. 

The director of this film, Arthur Lubin had only a few years ago helmed Universal's splashy color remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. He probably wasn't too happy to get a low-budget flick with an unexciting screenplay. 

The folks at Kino must have realized that a Blu-ray of a mediocre hour-long black & white movie needed some juice. They actually provide a "making-of" featurette on this disc, entitled MISTRESS OF MENACE AND MURDER: MAKING THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, which has genre experts such as C. Courtney Joyner, Bob Burns, and others. Joyner comes right out and calls STRIKES BACK a "bad movie". There's also a discussion of the life of Rondo Hatton. The featurette runs about ten minutes. 

Classic Universal expert Tom Weaver does the new audio commentary on this Blu-ray. He doesn't like STRIKES BACK either, and he gets plenty of opportunity to make sarcastic comments, but with a movie like this you can't blame him. Weaver does give out plenty of relevant info, such as there was labor unrest in Hollywood during the film's shoot, and he allows David Schecter to talk about the complicated music score. The trailer for THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK is also here, which has footage that is not in the actual film. This Blu-ray is coded Region A, and the sound and picture quality is okay. 

THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK is definitely for hard-core classic Universal fans. Kino should get credit for providing some interesting extras for it. If the movie had been made by Monogram or PRC, and starred Bela Lugosi, it might have been even sillier.....but it also would have been more entertaining. 


Friday, November 26, 2021



Universal loves to constantly release home video editions of their most famous classics such as FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but they seem to have little interest in their more obscure titles. Thankfully companies like Kino Lorber have taken up the slack. Kino has just put out SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, a 1933 release that, while not a straight horror film, contains many elements from Universal's better known chillers. 

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is actually a locked-room murder mystery. Somewhere (apparently) in Europe, Irene von Helldorf (Gloria Stuart) is celebrating her 21st birthday at her family's estate, along with her father (Lionel Atwill) and three of her suitors: Captain Brink (Paul Lukas), Frank (Onslow Stevens), and Thomas (William Janney). During the night the subject of the estate's notorious Blue Room comes up. This room has been locked up for twenty years after it was the scene of three mysterious deaths. The young Thomas decides to show his courage to Irene by volunteering to stay the night in the Blue Room. The next morning, Thomas has disappeared, and it seems that the room has claimed another victim. Another death happens, and a police commissioner (Edward Arnold) is called in to get to the bottom of the matter. 

Fans of classic Universal horror of the 30s and 40s will find plenty to enjoy about SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM. The main and end titles use the "Swan Lake" music, there's sets familiar from other Universal thrillers, and the very recognizable spooky wind sound effect used so much by the studio is here. This was Lionel Atwill's first film at Universal, and while he doesn't have as much to do as a film geek would want, it's fun watching him beginning his long association with the company. Gloria Stuart (who looks quite lovely here) of course starred in THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN, and Onslow Stevens would years later make an impact as Dr. Edlemann in HOUSE OF DRACULA. 

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is actually a remake of an earlier German film (it even uses some stock shots from that production). It's not the greatest mystery story in the world, but screenwriter William Hurlbut (another Universal veteran) throws in enough incidents to keep the viewer engaged for the 66-minute running time. Director Kurt Neumann and cinematographer Charles Stumar keep the film from being too static. The cast and production elements make SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM far more diverting than the typical movie mysteries of the period. 

The print used for this Region A Blu-ray is very good visually--it's not as brilliant looking as the recent more famous Universal monster title HD releases, but one has to consider that SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM has never had, as far as I know, an official home video release on disc. The main extra is a new audio commentary by Michael Schlesinger. His talk is enjoyable and well-paced, containing facts about the film and good-humored comments on some of the plot details. 

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM has long been considered a somewhat "lost" film in the Universal thriller-mystery canon, and it's great that Kino has put it out on Blu-ray. For fans of Universal that have never seen this picture, it will be a revelation--it's familiar and new at the same time. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

THE GIANT CLAW On Blu-ray From Arrow


Since this is Thanksgiving morning, I might as well present one of the biggest (literally and figuratively) cinematic turkeys of all: THE GIANT CLAW (1957).

This is by far the most notorious film included in Arrow Video's COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN Blu-ray set. Its notoriety comes from the look of the title creature--a giant bird (as big as a battleship, we are constantly told) that comes from outer space. 

If you have seen THE GIANT CLAW, you know how ridiculous this "monster" is. If you haven't...there's no description I can give that can accurately define it. Whoever did design this..."thing"...must have been under the influence of some controlled substances, or they must have had a huge grudge against producer Sam Katzman. (The effects work was apparently farmed out to some people in Mexico--I say apparently because even the critics involved in this Blu-ray's extras do not agree or know for certain how they were done.)

It's not just the big bird that is so awful--the other FX are terrible as well, with plenty of toy cars, trains, and planes involved. There's also some incredibly inane dialogue ("You keep your shirt on and I'll go get my pants on." "We've got kitchen sinks to spare, son!"). 

One could say that because of all the accumulated silliness, THE GIANT CLAW has had far more staying power than the usual 1950's low-budget sci-fi flick. I'm not one to get enjoyment out of movies because of how bad they are. If one takes away the jaw-dropping effects and some of the goofy plot elements, THE GIANT CLAW could have wound up being at least a standard genre film from this period. The plot structure is like most giant monster movies, and science-fiction veterans Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday (as a couple of scientists) play the main characters. Joining them in their fight against the flying beast is none other than Morris Ankrum, who of course plays a high-ranking member of the U.S. military. All three actors do the best they can--they certainly didn't know what the effects were going to be like. 

Arrow gives this turkey a fine presentation in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and the sharp black & white picture makes the effects look even worse. The disc includes an introduction by Kim Newman, who tries to defend the FX work (sorry, Kim--I'm not buying it). A featurette called FAMILY ENDANGERED!, by Mike White, examines how the four films in this Arrow set deal with Cold War paranoia and the safety of the American family. There's also a new audio commentary with Emma Westwood and Cerise Howard, that goes off on all sorts of tangents. Included as well are a condensed Super 8mm version of the film, and a trailer and image gallery (it's telling that the publicity stills do not show the big bird). 

I've gotten quite good at making excuses for movies like THE GIANT CLAW, but this one is really bad. Still, there is a train-wreck sort of fascination in watching such asinine effects work, and any monster movie fan will appreciate seeing Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, and Morris Ankrum. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

My 1,000th Blog Post: VIGIL IN THE NIGHT


This is post #1000 of The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog. One Thousand!!?? I can't believe I've written a thousand of these things....and I can't believe that they've had much of an overall effect. Nevertheless, I plan on continuing to write them for the time being. 

I tried to figure out something special that I could do for this particular post, and I was at a loss for ideas. I then decided to write a review on the only film that features my favorite actress (Carole Lombard) and favorite actor (Peter Cushing). 

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT was made by RKO, produced and directed by George Stevens, and released in 1940. It is the third in a quartet of consecutive films starring Carole Lombard in which she attempted to move away from her comedic persona (the other films were MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED). Here Lombard plays a dedicated and determined English nurse named Anne Lee. 

The story begins with Anne and her irresponsible sister Lucy (Anne Shirley) employed as nurses at a remote country hospital. Due to Lucy's negligence, a child dies, but the selfless Anne takes the blame to protect her sister. Anne obtains work at a city hospital that is short of money and staff. There she meets the distinguished Dr. Prescott (Brian Aherne), and the two become interested in one another. Anne goes through numerous trials and tribulations, but no matter what, she still remains hardworking, upbeat, and absolutely devoted to her chosen profession. 

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT was a major production for RKO, George Stevens, and Carole Lombard. It was based on a well-received novel by A. J. Cronin (which I have not read). Everyone involved in the film had high hopes for it. It is very well made, but it is basically a soap opera, and very grim at times. This is a movie that begins with a child dying onscreen, and things don't get much more optimistic from there. 

Among the things that Anne Lee has to deal with are shame and guilt after taking the blame for her sister's mistake, a bus crash, unsatisfactory conditions at the hospital she winds up at, being accused of coming on to the rich, middle-aged, and married chairman of the hospital's board (when it was he who was coming on to her), and, finally, a deadly epidemic. And she still has to put up with her sister's continuing personal problems. 

Anne responds to all these issues with confidence and equanimity--so much so she almost borders on being unbelievable. It's to Carole Lombard's credit that Anne doesn't come off as being too goody-goody or ridiculous. Lombard plays Anne in an understated, reserved manner, without any dramatic histrionics. (She doesn't get to wear any glamorous fashions, but she still manages to look beautiful nonetheless.) I'm sure that many of Lombard's fans may not like this performance--her usual liveliness and spontaneity are tamped down here--but one has to remember that she is playing a truly decent and dedicated individual, and a English lady at that. (Lombard doesn't use a full English accent--she modulates her voice with a trace of Mid-Atlantic, but I think it works.) Lombard isn't playing an overly emotional screwball girl--Anne Lee is a serious professional, who sublimates her own feelings in order to deal with whatever task is at hand. There are such people in the world (at least I hope there are), and I believe that this is one of Lombard's best and most underrated performances. 

Peter Cushing and Carole Lombard in VIGIL IN THE NIGHT

As for Peter Cushing, he only has a few scenes, but he gets to act with Lombard in every one of them. Cushing plays Joe Shand, who is (understandably) attracted to Anne. After the incident with the death of the child at the beginning of the film, Joe marries Anne's sister Lucy, which causes more complications--the couple go to London, Joe can't find a job, and Lucy leaves him to work at a shady "rest home" where she gets in trouble again. In one of the many coincidences in this movie, Anne and Dr. Prescott come to Lucy's rescue, and Anne and Lucy wind up working in the isolation ward during the epidemic. Lucy redeems herself at the climax, but she also "pays" for her earlier mistakes as well, in classic Hollywood fashion. Anne Shirley is good as Lucy, although I suspect that the real-life Lombard would have given the character a few slaps upside the head, or at least chewed her out. Cushing gets to have an emotional scene at the end, where he blames Anne for Lucy's fate. It's a bit startling to see Cushing look so young on screen, and to see him play someone who is basically a bumpkin. One wonders how Cushing's career would have fared if he had stayed in Hollywood--he would soon leave California and start a long and complicated trek back to his home in England (he felt uneasy about being away with World War II going on). 

Brian Aherne is efficient as Dr. Prescott, but the character seems too stuffy to be all that appealing (that's a good description of the film overall). Film geeks will appreciate that Donnie Dunagan, who played Basil Rathbone's boy in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, has a cameo as a child Prescott is trying to help. (This means that two members of the cinematic Frankenstein family--Dunagan and Peter Cushing--appear in this film.) 

One expects any film directed by George Stevens to be well-crafted, and VIGIL IN THE NIGHT certainly is. But the entire film is dark and moody--as is the cinematography by Robert de Grasse and the music by Alfred Newman. This is a story extolling the virtues of the nursing profession, so one understands why it must be serious--but one wishes that Stevens had injected some touches of humor in the story, and made Anne Lee a bit more ordinary. 

VIGIL IN THE NIGHT was not a box office success for RKO, and I doubt that audiences of 1940 would have been all that receptive to seeing a toned-down Carole Lombard dealing with sick & dying children. If the film had been better received Lombard might have even snagged an Academy Award nomination for it. This movie isn't popular among Lombard buffs, but it proves that she was a much more well-rounded actress than she has been given credit for. VIGIL IN THE NIGHT is nowhere near as fun to watch as MY MAN GODFREY or NOTHING SACRED, but it does show how talented Carole Lombard really was. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021



James Stewart's feature movie debut was the 1935 MGM production THE MURDER MAN, in which he played a supporting role to Spencer Tracy. Stewart and Tracy would go on to become two of MGM's biggest stars, but the only movie in which they actually co-starred together was MALAYA (1950). 

James Stewart and Spencer Tracy are two of my favorite actors, but it wasn't until recently that I got to see MALAYA. The movie almost never plays on TV, and it doesn't have much of a reputation. After viewing it I can understand why--it's set up to be a hard-hitting WWII action-adventure, with two major stars, but the end result is less than satisfactory. 

The film's plot is based on a true incident concerning the smuggling of much-needed rubber out of Japanese-controlled Malaya for use by the Allied cause. A cynical reporter named John Royer (James Stewart), who was based in the Far East during the beginning of the war, informs a newspaper editor (Lionel Barrymore) that he knows how to get rubber out from under the Japanese in Malaya. Royer tells the government of his plan, which involves an incarcerated smuggler named Carnahan (Spencer Tracy). Carnahan is released from Alcatraz and he and Royer sneak into Malaya, where they make contact with a shady nightclub owner called the Dutchman (Sydney Greenstreet). Their plot goes well at first, but the Japanese eventually catch up with them. 

MALAYA tries to be like CASABLANCA--a title from an exotic foreign location, a plot involving intrigue during WWII, and numerous eccentric characters, such as the one played by Sydney Greenstreet (he's basically reprising his role in CASABLANCA). The director of MALAYA, Richard Thorpe, is no Michael Curtiz, and there's more talk than action. Both James Stewart and Spencer Tracy are playing Humphrey Bogart-type roles, but there's no dramatic moment where the men show that they realize that there's more important things than their own self-interests. The characters played by the two stars stay so cynical throughout the whole movie that one wonders why they are so obsessed with getting the rubber out from under the noses of the Japanese. (Tracy, by the way, gets the far better role here.)

We also don't get much background on the main characters. We don't know why Stewart's reporter is so surly most of the time, or why Tracy's Carnahan became a smuggler. Carnahan is given a love interest, a singer (Valentina Cortesa) who works at the nightclub owned by the Dutchman, but she's really just the obligatory female in the story--if she had written out of the film it wouldn't have affected it one bit. 

While watching MALAYA I started to think that a studio like Warner Bros. would have been much better suited for this film. (One can imagine James Cagney and Bogart playing the leading characters.) The pacing would have been improved, and the story's more cynical elements would have been far better realized. The very last scene in MALAYA seems to have been added just to give the story a somewhat happy ending. 

MALAYA isn't bad--but considering that it's the only film where Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy co-starred as equals, it should have been much better. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021



When it comes to the American TV Gothic soap opera DARK SHADOWS, I have to admit that I am not a major expert on it. I own a Blu-ray of the first theatrical film based on the series, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (which is very good), and I know the basics behind it, and its impact on popular culture. But I have seen very few episodes of the original series, and I really don't have the time (or the inclination) to watch hundreds and hundreds more. 

Nevertheless, DARK SHADOWS AND BEYOND: THE JONATHAN FRID STORY is a fine and engaging documentary on the actor who portrayed the series' breakout character--the complex vampire Barnabas Collins. I watched this on AppleTV, and it is available on home video from MPI.

Jonathan Frid (1924-2012) was born in Ontario, Canada, and he got the acting bug as a youngster in school. He had a long and distinguished stage career before he joined the cast of DARK SHADOWS in 1967. This erudite gentleman, with a talent for interpreting Shakespeare, soon became an unlikely pop icon, with plenty of young and enthusiastic fans. Frid's run as Barnabas came and went rather quickly, but he never let the role define him or his career. 

This documentary gives extensive coverage to Frid's entire life (it runs a little over 100 minutes). Obviously DARK SHADOWS is a main element here, but the film truly does go beyond that, showing an actor who was committed to his craft rather than fame or money. 

After DARK SHADOWS, Frid never developed much of a TV or film career, but that didn't seem particularly important to him. His main love was the stage, and performing the classics before a live audience. Frid's striking looks and mesmerizing voice were perfect for the theater, which this documentary makes very clear. 

The film also makes clear that Frid was a hard-working professional who didn't have ego trips or temper tantrums. Several of Frid's friends, co-workers, relatives, and associates are interviewed, and they paint a portrait of a man who was kindly, cultured, and decent. Despite the fact that Frid spent several years in America, he never lost his understated Canadian sensibility (he moved back to his native country during the latter part of his life). 

There's plenty of footage here of Frid in various interviews (and audio as well). He comes off as thoughtful and articulate, with a dry sense of humor. Unfortunately the documentary cannot present how Frid was while acting on stage night after night, but it does gives a sense of how charismatic a performer he was. There's also footage from the various one-man shows that Frid (with the help of some friends and fans) put together later in his life. 

DARK SHADOWS AND BEYOND: THE JONATHAN FRID STORY was produced and directed by Mary O'Leary, who knew the actor personally. The pace never sags, and there's no tabloid aspects to this film--I found that quite refreshing. 

I assume that most rabid DARK SHADOWS fans have seen this documentary already, but you don't have to love the show to enjoy this film. I believe that, for those with an interest in acting and performing, DARK SHADOWS AND BEYOND might even be inspirational. It defines Jonathan Frid as more than just a daytime TV vampire--he was a serious artist who lived his life the way he wanted to, and he made a positive impression on many people during it. 

Saturday, November 13, 2021



ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO is writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone's reinterpretation of his famed ROCKY IV, one of the ultimate examples of 1980s American pop culture. I wasn't able to see this at its only recent theatrical showing, but I did view it on AppleTV. 

There's a bit of a difference between ROCKY VS. DRAGO and the original ROCKY IV. The main change is the tone. Stallone has tamped down or removed most of the cheesy aspects of ROCKY IV (fans of Paulie's robot are going to be sorely disappointed). The thing is, the cheesiness of ROCKY IV is what made it so entertaining. 

The pacing of ROCKY VS. DRAGO is also much quicker than that of ROCKY IV. (Even with added material, it only runs about 90 minutes.) I assume that Stallone used faster cuts here because that's what 21st audiences are used to, but for me I thought the pace was too fast at times--there's more than a few instances of choppy editing. 

Most of the "new" scenes involve discussions between Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire gets more to do here than in the original ROCKY IV). According to reviews Stallone also used a number of alternate takes. Stallone also changed the aspect ratio from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1. I thought this move was strange--did Stallone do this to make the film seem more epic? 

The thing is, ROCKY VS. DRAGO is meant to be a more intimate, serious film. Almost all the humorous elements have been taken out, and even Rocky's climatic "Everybody can change" speech seems muted here. I have the feeling that Stallone was influenced by the CREED films, and that he wondered what would happen if he took one of the earlier Rocky adventures and made it more like the recent Creed stories. ROCKY IV was an obvious choice, since Ivan Drago is such a factor in CREED II. 

ROCKY VS. DRAGO is interesting, especially if you are a fan of the Rocky franchise. But did Sylvester Stallone really need to do a George Lucas on one of his most famous movies? Stallone certainly has the right to do so--it's his film, his character. I still prefer the original ROCKY IV. Special editions of famous movies are not necessarily better ones. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

THE WEREWOLF On Blu-ray From Arrow


It's back to Arrow Video's COLD WAR CREATURES: FOUR FILMS FROM SAM KATZMAN Blu-ray set. This time I'll be looking at THE WEREWOLF (1956). 

THE WEREWOLF is by far the best film in this set. It's not as outlandish as the other entries, and it's downbeat and realistic tone makes it stand out. 

In a small remote Northern California community, a violent creature is on the loose--but it's actually a man who has been injected, without his knowledge, by an experimental serum. The man, named Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) has no idea what is happening to him, or why he essentially changes into a werewolf. The local sheriff (Don Megowan) is determined to protect the locals, while his girlfriend nurse (Joyce Holden) wants to help the man and find out the reasons behind his plight. Also on the lookout for Marsh is his wife and young son, and the two doctors (George Lynn & S. John Launer) who are responsible for his condition. The doctors don't want to help Marsh--they want to kill him to prevent exposure of their activities. 

THE WEREWOLF has a distraught, put-upon man on the run, who doesn't comprehend what's wrong with him, it's in black & white, and it has a tragic ending. I would call THE WEREWOLF a "rustic noir", since it takes place in a rural, wooded setting. Steven Ritch is very good as the sympathetic Marsh. There's nothing extraordinary about Ritch as an actor, but that makes his situation all the more real. The two doctors who secretly experimented on Marsh are not Mad Scientist types, but bland ordinary fellows, which makes them seem more dangerous. The small town setting is clearly defined by director Fred Sears, and his use of the snowy outdoor locales makes the story stand out from the usual sci-fi/horror fare of the same period. 

Don Megowan (who played the transformed Gill Man in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US) is the by-the-book sheriff, while Joyce Holden is good as the sympathetic nurse. Eleanore Tanin plays the sad role of Marsh's wife. 

The look of the werewolf in this film resembles a lycanthrope from another Columbia film, 1943's THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE. It's still an effective makeup job--and because Marsh's rages are triggered by anger instead of the full moon, we get to see him transformed in full daylight. 

As in the other films included in this set, THE WEREWOLF gets plenty of extras. There's an introduction to the movie by Kim Newman, and he briefly discusses the career of director Fred Sears, then talks a bit about the movie's combination of science-fiction and traditional horror elements. There's a visual essay called BEYOND WINDOW DRESSING, written and narrated by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. In it she examines the leading female characters in each of the Sam Katzman films in this set. There's also a very pedantic audio commentary by Lee Gambin (he believes there are a LOT of subtexts in this low-budget 80 minute B movie). Also on this disc is a short 8mm version of the film, a trailer, and an image gallery. Like the rest of the films in the set, there's a reversible disc cover, and three mini lobby cards in the case. 

THE WEREWOLF is the most notable feature in Arrow's Sam Katzman set. It has a thoughtful, almost realistic much so that one is a bit surprised that Katzman produced it. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

AN ANGEL FOR SATAN On Blu-ray From Severin


AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1966) is the last true Italian Gothic film that the iconic Barbara Steele starred in. The movie finally gets a proper official Blu-ray release courtesy of Severin Films. 

Sometime in the 19th Century, a young artist named Roberto (Anthony Steffen) travels to an Italian villa in order to restore a 200-year old statue. The statue was recovered from the bottom of a lake next to the villa--and local superstition claims that it is cursed. Also arriving at the villa is the young & beautiful Harriet (Barbara Steele), who will soon inherit the estate. Roberto and Harriet start to fall for one another. The statue bears a startling resemblance to the lady, and Roberto tries to learn more about the curse, but Harriet's uncle (Claudio Gora) and the locals are evasive. Harriet's demeanor starts to change greatly--she becomes a vindictive seductress, ensnaring men from the area. Is Harriet possessed by the model for the original statue, or are there other sinister forces at work? 

AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (original Italian title UN ANGELO PER SATANA) mixes several elements from many of Barbara Steele's other 1960s Italian horrors, but the result is something a bit different. The black & white film has no gore, but there's plenty of aggressive actions, and while there's no nudity, the story has a definite erotic charge. Once again Steele plays a character with a dual nature, and she appears to be reveling in it. When the actress is being "bad" Harriet, she seduces nearly everyone in sight, including a schoolteacher, the villa's doltish gardener, and a country lout (played by Euro Western legend Mario Brega). Harriet even turns her devilish charms on her maid (who is the girlfriend of the schoolteacher). Those who worship at the altar of Barbara will luxuriate in this film--the excellent cinematography of Giuseppe Aquari wallows in Steele's cruel beauty (she's quite ravishing and striking in the costumes she wears here). 

Director Camillo Mastrocinque (CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE) injects the story with a moody, dreamlike atmosphere, and the various Italian locales used for the production make the budget seem much bigger than I'm sure it probably was. AN ANGEL FOR SATAN isn't another cheap foreign shocker--at times it has a European art house feel. Unfortunately the attempt to rationally explain things at the climax leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. 

This film has never had an official home video release until now. (I first saw AN ANGEL FOR SATAN on YouTube.) Severin, as usual, goes all out for this one. The visual quality is magnificent, revealing plenty of detail and depth. Two audio tracks are provided--an Italian one (with English subtitles), and an English one that was considered lost. 

Two audio commentaries are provided. One features the icon herself, Barbara Steele, along with David Del Valle and Severin's David Gregory. Steele has plenty of stories to tell about her time making films in Italy in the 1960s, and she seems a bit bemused by her horror star status. (I also got the feeling that she would have much rather watched the film rather than talked about it.) As expected, Del Valle provides a lot of gossipy anecdotes, while Gregory tries to keep everything on track. The second commentary is by Kat Ellinger (I haven't listened to this one yet). 

Also included is a short interview with actor Vassili Karis, who played the schoolteacher in AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (he really doesn't have all that much to say about the film). There's also a short film starring Barbara Steele based on VENUS IN FURS, which was made in 1967. It plays out like a bizarre music video/fashion shoot, a true product of the Sixties. A audio commentary is also available for the short in which Steele talks about it. 

Two original trailers are provided, and the Blu-ray comes with a case sleeve that is made of much sturdier material than usual. The artwork used on the actual case (see picture above) and the sleeve (see picture below) is very impressive. 


AN ANGEL FOR SATAN has long been a somewhat lost film among Barbara Steele's horror entries, but now thankfully Severin has provided it with the home video release it deserves. (I have to mention that this Blu-ray is Region A.) I believe it contains one of Barbara Steele's most notable performances--any true devotee of the lady has to have this disc. 

Now....I have a suggestion for Severin Films. Could they possibly release a special edition of Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST, also starring Steele? 

Friday, November 5, 2021



French filmmaker Abel Gance will always be known for his stupendous silent-era epic NAPOLEON. But he also made another movie featuring the famed conqueror--a 1959 production called THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ (aka just AUSTERLITZ). 

I recently purchased a bargain-priced DVD of this film from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers. The DVD was produced by Reel Vault, and I was wondering what the quality of it would be. I have to say I was presently surprised. Not only was the movie in anamorphic widescreen, the sound was in stereo--and the picture quality was excellent, with a very colorful and sharp print. 

As for the movie itself--needless to say, it has nowhere near the virtuosity and ingenuity of Gance's 1927 NAPOLEON. The story starts out right before Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France, and deals with his problems with the English, and his relationships with various aides and family members. Eventually Napoleon calls off his planned invasion of England, and he marches his Grande Armee into the heart of Europe, to fight the famous battle near Austerlitz. 

It must be pointed out that this is the English-language version of the movie, which runs about two hours. According to my research, the original version of this film is almost three hours long. On the version I watched it was easy to ascertain that the film had been truncated. The story had a very disjointed feel to it, with several unconnected sequences detailing events in Napoleon's life. The movie became much more focused when the actual battle started. 

A number of characters pop in and out throughout the film, and they are played by a number of notable names. Martine Carol plays Napoleon's wife Josephine, and Leslie Caron plays one of the Emperor's mistresses. Claudia Cardinale plays one of Napoleon's sisters, and Vittorio De Sica plays the Pope. Orson Welles is inventor Robert Fulton, while Jack Palance is a cocky Russian general. European stars such as Jean Marais, Michel Simon, Rossano Brazzi, and Jean-Louis Trintignant also make appearances. 

The problem is that all of these performers that I have mentioned have only one or two scenes at the most, and they do not get a chance to make much of an impression. Pierre Mondy plays Napoleon, and here he does look the part. Mondy's Bonaparte is an impetuous and temperamental fellow, but the portrayal is hampered by the flat American voice used in the dubbing. Most of the characters have underwhelming American voices dubbed on them, which doesn't do much for a story set in early 19th Century Europe. Orson Welles dubbed in his own voice, but it's hard to tell if Jack Palance did or not, since he (or the dubber) is using a weird accent that doesn't sound Russian. 

As for the battle itself, it's kind of generic--which is disappointing, when one considers how flamboyantly cinematic Gance was in the '27 NAPOLEON. We see groups of soldiers marching or riding toward each other, but always on what appears to be the same ground. (There's plenty of talk among the opposing generals about capturing the Prazen heights, but we see nothing that resembles a "height".) 

Perhaps Gance did not have the budget to fulfill his vision here, but the overall movie does look fairly expensive, with impressive sets and costumes. (There also had to have been some money paid out to all the notable actors who appear in the production.) 

It's probably unfair to judge this version of THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ without seeing the un-dubbed, unedited original. But one must assume that all the "good stuff" was kept in the English-language version. For me, THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ felt like a dry historical montage. I certainly didn't expect it to reach the heights of the '27 NAPOLEON (almost no film could ever do that), but I was hoping for something a bit more dynamic. 

One also has to realize that Abel Gance was about 70 when this film was made, and his credited collaborator on the project, Roger Richebe, was in his 60s. Age is just a number, but there is a definite lack of gusto here. 

I still think THE BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ is worth a look to fans of war & historical films, especially if you can get the fine-looking version of it on the low-priced Reel Vault DVD. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

DUNE (Part One)


Denis Villeneuve's new cinematic adaptation of DUNE is the best one so far. The choice to cover Frank Herbert's sprawling novel over two films is an intelligent one, as it gives the filmmakers far more time to cover various aspects of the complex story. (As a matter of fact, this first part of the new DUNE is longer than the David Lynch 1984 version, which dealt with the entire novel.)

Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser present a number of stunning images here, and the important thing is that the viewer is given time to appreciate them. There's no shaky camerawork, or ADD influenced editing to get in the way. The production design and effects fit this film's tone perfectly, and unlike most recent science-fiction/fantasy blockbusters, this picture avoids feeling too CGI-ish. (I do think the visuals were hampered a bit by Hans Zimmer's overbearing score.) 

Villeneuve (who is also credited as one of the film's writers) makes the characters more relatable to an audience, getting away from the clunky dialogue of the David Lynch version. But at the same time he doesn't water the story down. This is a movie that a viewer needs to pay attention to. 

This DUNE features plenty of actors familiar to film geeks and fanboys, with Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho getting the best chance to shine (and he makes the most of it). Rebecca Ferguson in particular deserves attention as Lady Jessica. 

Timothee Chalamet plays the lead role of Paul Atreides, and I must admit that he didn't come off to me as a future dynamic revolutionary leader. But this is the first part of DUNE, and his Paul still has a long way to go in his journey. 

I had a lot of high hopes for this new DUNE (I'm a huge fan of Villeneuve's BLADE RUNNER 2049), and, for this first part at least, I'm quite satisfied. I'll certainly be looking forward to the second film. 

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Official James Bond Films--My Best To Worst (Part Five)


And now we come to the end of my personal ranking of the James Bond films. 

An absolutely ridiculous film. But...
If one adjusts for inflation, this still has one of the highest budgets of any Bond film. And it looks it--the money is all up there on the screen, with several spectacular sequences. There's plenty of dopey elements here, especially the STAR WARS wannabe climax, but at least it isn't boring. 

This is a perfect summation of the Daniel Craig era. It's overlong, dour, and obsessed with what happened in the other Craig/Bond films. And what happens at the very end is no way to get on my good side. 

This movie got a lot of attention due to it coming out in 2002, the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Bond movie franchise. It wasn't much of a tribute, with idiotic CGI stunts, an invisible car, and too much emphasis on Halle Berry. 

Essentially nothing more than a very weak epilogue to CASINO ROYALE, with a very underwhelming villain. 

My pick for the worst overall Bond film. You can't pin all the blame on Roger Moore--everything about this movie is bad, except for the title song. 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Official James Bond Films--My Best To Worst (Part Four)


We're entering very mediocre territory here. The films are not the worst of the Bond series (at least from my perspective), but they have in common an overall inconsistent tone. 

A sorely-needed change of lead actor highlights this film, with the younger, more serious Timothy Dalton replacing a past-his-prime Roger Moore. At this point in the series, an overall reboot was needed, but Dalton was placed in a typical Bond adventure that doesn't know whether to be hard-edged or silly. There are plenty of great action scenes here, a specialty of 1980s Bond director John Glen. 

After an attempt at toning the series down with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, this is another wild 007 extravaganza with an India that feels like it comes from a 1940s Hollywood B movie, a troupe of circus girls who look like supermodels, and Bond disarming a nuclear bomb while dressed up as a clown. 

Roger Moore's 007 debut is now best remembered for its blaxplotation elements, which date the film badly. (Ironically, all the 1970s Bond films have aged far worse than the ones made the previous decade.) 

This is basically a remake of THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, which was a reworking of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Jonathan Pryce as an evil media baron seems like a great idea, but he all but ruins the story. Michelle Yeoh is the best thing in the film. 

It has a fantastic pre-credits sequence, and having Sophie Marceau turning into the villain is unique idea, but this has way too many goofy elements. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Official James Bond Films--My Best To Worst (Part Three)


Now we're getting into middle-of-the-pack territory, and it's getting harder and harder to differentiate these films from one another. In all honesty I could have written the choices from #11 to #20 about a dozen ways. There really isn't much separation between the Bond movies here, and I'm sure that if I go back and read this post a few months from now, I'll wonder why I ranked the films in this section the way I did. 

Sean Connery's last "official" Bond film. A big comedown after ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Instead of an embittered, revenge-obsessed 007 determined to kill Blofeld, we get an out-of-shape Connery who breezes through the movie as if he doesn't have a care in the world. Those who want to blame Roger Moore for what happened to the Bond series in the 1970s need to realize that path had already been taken with this production. It is entertaining, though. 

For those who think I am ranking this too high, remember this list is of my personal favorite Bond films, not the greatest Bond films. Christopher Lee is the major reason this movie winds up where it does. And it has Marne Maitland in it too!

After the hugely expensive Space Madness of MOONRAKER, the series tried to go back to a more realistic, low-key tone. It doesn't quite work, due to a fake Blofeld at the very beginning, and a fake Margaret Thatcher at the very end. Still, I think Roger Moore acquits himself rather well in a more down-to-earth tale. 

This feels more like a Christopher Nolan film than a Bond entry--it's overlong, there's a number of impressive individual sequences, the villain's plot is so incredibly elaborate a thousand things have to go perfectly right for it to work, and the viewer doesn't feel much of an attachment to any of the main characters. Roger Deakins' cinematography is the real star here. 

What I said about SKYFALL basically applies to this movie as well. Both SPECTRE and SKYFALL are very well-crafted films, but for whatever reason I just can't get into them the way I think I should. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Official James Bond Films--My Best To Worst (Part Two)


In this round, we deal with numbers 6 through 10. 

6. DR. NO
Through 21st Century eyes this movie might seem a bit quaint. But considering it was the very first James Bond film, it's quite effective, with Sean Connery already defining the role in his debut as 007. With tone-setting performances by Joseph Wiseman (as the first main Bond villain) and Ursula Andress (as the first main Bond girl). 

THUNDERBALL tried to out-do GOLDFINGER, and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE tries to out-do THUNDERBALL. It succeeds with such elements as Blofeld's incredible volcano lair, the best villain's headquarters in the entire series. There's also Freddie Young's cinematography, "Little Nellie", John Barry's music, and the exotic Japanese locations. Unfortunately Connery seems bored throughout most of the film, and the attempt to disguise Bond as a poor Japanese fisherman is ludicrous. 

I've read somewhere online that when adjusted for inflation, this is still the highest-grossing Bond film. It was also the first true Bond epic. It might have worked better if it was a more tightly constructed story, like the earlier three films in the series. The climatic underwater battle seems to drag on forever, and there's some surprisingly mediocre effects work here as well. It's still better than most of the Bond films made in the next two decades. 

Legal issues put the Bond series on hiatus for about half a decade after LICENCE TO KILL. When the series started up again, a mini-reboot was in order, with Pierce Brosnan brought in as a more mainstream 007 as compared to Timothy Dalton. I liked Brosnan's Bond a lot--I've always felt he was a cross between Connery and Roger Moore. GOLDENEYE is the best Brosnan outing by far--his era would steadily decline after this. 

This movie gives a hint as to what a Timothy Dalton run as Bond might have looked like if the series had totally committed to him. 007 gets to go rogue here, but that aspect of the plot isn't followed through enough. The movie also feels very much like an enlarged MIAMI VICE episode. It does have some of the best stunt work of the series. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Official James Bond Films--My Best To Worst (Part One)


It's finally come to this--my ranking of all 25 of the official James Bond films. I'll be revealing these in increments of five, starting out with my very favorites first. 

There were a number of other Bond film posts I was going to write, but I started to realize that all these "Favorite-Least Favorite" entries did was just reaffirm my admiration for the classic, earlier Bonds. With October coming to an end, I figured I better get to the heart of the matter and rank the entire Bond series, which was the whole point of these 007 movie posts to begin with. 

One thing I must mention is that this isn't deadly serious critical analysis, it's just my own personal opinion, and it's meant to be film-geekish fun. 

So let's get started with my favorite Bond film of all time.....

Before the series got too gimmicky, over-the-top, and expensive, there was FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the second Bond film, and probably the closest adaptation of any Ian Fleming novel. There's no end-of-the-world scenarios, or outlandish villains with elaborate secret bases. What we do have is a realistic espionage tale, with Sean Connery in his absolute prime as 007, and Daniela Bianchi, my pick as the most delectable Bond girl of all. It has a fantastic supporting cast, and a superb John Barry score. Everything came together on this one. 

Some now say that this film is overrated, and some say that it wound up hurting the Bond series as a whole. I don't believe those things at all. GOLDFINGER is THE Bond film, and it still influences the series to this day. It's an extremely enjoyable movie--which is what a great Bond film, in my opinion, is supposed to be. 

I think we have reached the point where we can safely say that this movie is no longer "underrated". It's not just a great Bond film, it's a great film period, with outstanding direction by Peter Hunt, whose editing on earlier Bonds had a major effect on the entire series as a whole. The fact that George Lazenby was a complete newcomer to movie acting actually helps the story--Lazenby's Bond seems like a believable human being here, not an indestructible superhero. (The Connery and Moore Bonds certainly would have bedded Diana Rigg's Tracy, but you wouldn't buy the idea that those two would marry her.) OHMSS also has magnificent stunt and action sequences and John Barry's best overall Bond soundtrack. 

With this film, the Broccolis finally did something that should have been done a long time ago--they totally rebooted the series and started from the beginning, by going to Ian Fleming's very first Bond novel. Ironically Daniel Craig, in his 007 debut, seems more assured playing the character here than he would in his later films. Eva Green is a knockout as Vesper Lynd, and the action sequences are spectacular. As for the rest of the Craig-Bond era, well......

The best Roger Moore Bond film, by far. After two mediocre outings starring Moore, Cubby Broccoli (who had full control of the series by this time) decided to shoot the works and bring Bond back to epic status. This is basically a remake of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, but it's big, bold, and fun. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

My Favorite James Bond Vehicles



Aston Martin DB5 (used in GOLDFINGER)

You HAVE to pick the classic DB5 as the greatest James Bond vehicle. 007 will be forever linked to Aston Martin, although for various eras in the Bond movie series the company's cars did not appear. 


No major gadgets, but it's the car Bond was driving when he first saw his great love Tracy, and sadly when he lost her. 

Lotus Esprit (used in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME)

For whatever reason Roger Moore's Bond didn't drive Aston Martins, but he did have this unique-looking speedster that could go underwater. Moore is associated with the Esprit the way Sean Connery is associated with the DB5. 

Aston Martin DBS V12 (used in CASINO ROYALE)

A fantastic vehicle, but Daniel Craig's Bond only gets about five minutes use out of it before it gets totaled. (When you think about it, that's what happens to every Aston Martin that is used by Craig's Bond.) 

AMC Matador Coupe (used in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN)

It's not just a AMC can be converted into a flying car, and it's used by Christopher Lee. What more do you need?

Thursday, October 14, 2021

My Favorite/Least Favorite James Bond Music



1. John Barry
2. David Arnold
3. Everyone else


CASINO ROYALE (1967), Burt Bacharach

Yes, I know this movie isn't part of the official Bond series, but on my blog I can do whatever I want. 


"Goldfinger", performed by Shirley Bassey in GOLDFINGER
"A View To A Kill", performed by Duran Duran in A VIEW TO A KILL

The best thing about the movie by far. 

"Live and Let Die", performed by Paul McCartney in LIVE AND LET DIE

Does anyone else think it ironic that the "nice Beatle" wrote and sang such a misanthropic tune?

"Nobody Does It Better", performed by Carly Simon in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
"You Know My Name", performed by Chris Cornell in CASINO ROYALE (2006)

An off-the-wall pick, but it stands out over the recent mediocre Bond title songs.  


"The Living Daylights", performed by a-ha in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS

If you can understand the lyrics to this song, you should apply for a job as a translator at the United Nations. 

"All Time High", performed by Rita Coolidge in OCTOPUSSY

A fitting song for AM Easy Listening radio, but not for a Bond film. 

"Die Another Day", performed by Madonna in DIE ANOTHER DAY

What's worse--the song, or Madonna's cameo in the film?

"Writing's On The Wall", performed by Sam Smith in SPECTRE
"No Time To Die", performed by Billie Eilish in NO TIME TO DIE

I watched this movie less than a week ago from writing this, and I literally remember nothing about the title song.