Monday, June 21, 2021

THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM On Blu-ray From Severin

 





One would think that from the title, and the disc cover (above), THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM is a grisly example of torture porn or a long-lost Jess Franco movie. It's neither--it's actually a dark fairy tale, set far in the past in a European neverland. The film is part of Severin's exemplary THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE Blu-ray box set. 

This is a 1967 German film, and its native title is DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDAL. In America it also had such titles attached to it as BLOOD DEMON and CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD. Whatever one chooses to call it, the film was produced and directed by veterans of the German "Krimi" genre, which Lee himself had already dabbled in. 

Sometime in what appears to be the early 19th Century, somewhere in Middle Europe, a lawyer (Lex Barker) and a beautiful young woman (Karin Dor) are invited to a mysterious castle, on the pretense of learning something about their pasts. After a harrowing journey, the two arrive at the castle to find that they have been lured there by a Count Regula (Christopher Lee), who was drawn and quartered some thirty years ago for murdering several women. The Count plots to take his revenge against them, and he also wants to use Dor's blood in order to gain full immortality. 

A few years ago, I bought a very cheap DVD of this film which used the TORTURE CHAMBER title. The picture quality was far more horrid than anything that happened in the story, it wasn't in widescreen, and it had been edited. The terrible condition that the movie was in is how most people have seen it over the years. 

The transfer of THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM that Severin presents in its Christopher Lee box set is so beyond the other versions of the film available in North America that there's absolutely no comparison. This version is the original unedited German print (with German credits). According to the back of the disc cover, it was scanned from the original negative, and it is stunning, with eye-popping colors and the correct aspect ratio. 

The brilliant picture quality makes this title ripe for a total reevaluation. This Blu-ray reveals that the movie is a mad mixture of Italian Gothic, Hammer horror, and Edgar Allan Poe by Roger Corman. Director Harald Reinl pulls out all the stops, with a beginning that has a fairy tale-like village setting, a haunted forest, a creepy manservant who helps Count Regula in his nefarious schemes, and a dilapidated castle that has interiors that appear decked out for the world's greatest Halloween party. There's also torture devices, vultures, bugs, snakes, and garish color and production design. It's like a Mario Bava movie on steroids. 

Christopher Lee really doesn't have all that much to do--he appears at the start and end of the film--but his pasty-faced Count makes a vivid impression. (However you define his character, he is decidedly not playing a vampire.) It also helps that Lee dubbed his own voice on the English track. Former Tarzan Lex Barker makes a proper stalwart hero, and Karin Dor looks ravishing in period costume. Karl Lange (who has far more screen time than Lee) gets the juiciest role as Regula's right-hand man. 

Despite all the ghoulish elements, there's very little gore here. The movie is a wild ride from start to finish, and it's great fun for those who like their classic horror to be prepared extra creepy. The rather strange (for this type of story anyway) music score is by Peter Thomas. 

Severin provides a ton of extras for this title. There's a recent interview with Karin Dor (who passed away not long ago). It's a short audio talk that is presented with stills of Dor during various points of her film career. She talks about such co-stars as Nigel Green and Klaus Kinski, and she gives her impressions of working for Alfred Hitchcock on TOPAZ. Ironically the film featured on this Blu-ray is barely mentioned. 

A short feature on the village location is included, with then-and-now shots that show the place looks quite the same as it did during shooting. There's two different German Super 8 digest shorts of the movie, a poster gallery, original German trailers, and a behind-the-scenes gallery and slideshow which give a glimpse at how the film was restored. 

A new audio commentary is here as well, with Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth. It's an engaging and enthusiastic one, as the duo discuss the various versions of the movie that have cropped up on home video over the years, and how the recent restoration should enable the picture to be elevated to a fine example of Euro Gothic. They also analyze Christopher Lee's acting career during the time this movie was made. 

Out of all the material in the Severin Christopher Lee box set, this is the best-looking title by far. It's an amazing restoration that makes the film seem brand new--no matter how many times you may have seen one of the old lousy video releases of this feature, this is something totally different. The plot of THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM may not make a lot of sense, but it isn't supposed to. It's pure dark Gothic fantasy, the kind that lovers of the macabre can delve into without things getting too nasty. 

*By the way...I can't stand the title that is used for this Blu-ray. It's silly, and I even feel silly writing it. It in no way fits or describes the mood of the story. But this is still a great example of fantastic cinema. 




Sunday, June 20, 2021

COMMANDOS

 






COMMANDOS is a 1968 Italian-German co-production dealing with a secret mission in North Africa before the Operation Torch landings in late 1942 during WWII. The movie stars Lee Van Cleef, who at this time was at the height of his popularity as a Euro movie action star, and Jack Kelly, best known for the MAVERICK TV show. 

A group of U.S. soldiers, all of Italian descent and fluent in the language, are parachuted into North Africa before Operation Torch in order to take over a supply oasis. The group is led by Lt. Valli (Jack Kelly) and Sergeant Sullivan (Lee Van Cleef). Valli has been assigned to the group at the last minute--he planned the operation, but he has no real experience in combat. Sullivan, a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners type, is resentful of Valli. The group takes over the base, and poses as Italian soldiers, but the differences between Valli and Sullivan complicate matters. A German patrol stops by, with a tank commander (Joachim Fuchsberger). The commandos temporarily fool the Germans, but things soon get out of hand, and Valli and Sullivan have to learn to fight alongside each other. 

A brief description of COMMANDOS would make one think it is no more than a Spaghetti Western set in WWII, but the movie is a decent action flick that doesn't go off the rails the way so many other Eurocult pictures do. Lee Van Cleef's strong screen presence is perfect for the role of Sgt. Sullivan, a veteran who knows what war really means. The character of Sullivan is given a bit more depth in that he suffers from PTSD due to his experiences fighting at Bataan (this is presented in the film by giallo-esque flashbacks). This gives Sullivan a legitimate reason to distrust an officer like Valli. Due to the storyline one would expect Valli to come off as an officious jerk, but Jack Kelly plays him in a realistic manner--the lieutenant has a much different mindset than Sullivan, but he's not a coward or a detriment in combat. 

Joachim Fuchsberger, the King of Krimi, has a small but pivotal role as the German tank commander. Ironically, the Germans in this film are not portrayed as goose-stepping stereotypes--Fuchsberger's character was a professor in civilian life, and he's shown to be a distinguished man. I'm sure COMMANDOS didn't have all that much of a budget, but we do get an armored attack against the oasis at the climax (of course all the vehicles used are not from the WWII-era). 

COMMANDOS was directed (and co-written) by Armando Crispino. I have actually seen another Crispino film--JOHN THE BASTARD, which was terrible. COMMANDOS isn't brilliant, but it delivers the goods--there's plenty of shoot-outs and explosions, and there's a tough leading man in Van Cleef. The Italian locations fill in well for North Africa, and there's plenty of suspense generated over the commandos posing as Italian soldiers. Among the many co-writers listed in the credits are two future famous names: Menahem Golan and Dario Argento. The music score, which at times sounds like it was written for a horror film, is by Mario Nascimbene. 

I viewed COMMANDOS on Tubi, and it was a surprisingly nice widescreen transfer. The credits were in Italian, but the film was dubbed in English (thankfully Van Cleef and Kelly's voices are used). Considering how many cult names were involved in this movie, it's surprising that there hasn't been a official Blu-ray release of this from a company by Kino. 

Certainly Lee Van Cleef fans will want to check out COMMANDOS. It's a rough, no-nonsense war movie that doesn't glorify combat, or make it seem an adventure--the climax is quite downbeat. 



Monday, June 14, 2021

THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR On Blu-ray From Kino

 





Kino Lorber continues its exemplary series of home video releases of rare German films with this Blu-ray of the 1929 silent THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR. This movie is notable for being an example of Marlene Dietrich in a starring role before THE BLUE ANGEL. 

Many assume that Dietrich had a negligible screen career before her breakout role in THE BLUE ANGEL, but she had already appeared in a number of features. One may not be able to hear Marlene's voice in THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR, but her sultry, entrancing beauty is well in evidence here, along with her ability to dominate the scene without apparently doing much. THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR proves that Dietrich had full command of the attributes she would be legendary for before she ever met Josef von Sternberg. 

THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR is another of those German silent melodramas where a mysterious, alluring woman drives a man (or men) to madness and/or personal ruin. There were plenty of these stories at the time, starring such ladies as Brigitte Helm, Louise Brooks, and Lya de Putti. (The original German title of this film is DIE FRAU NACH DER MAN SICH SEHNT, and it was released in America as THE THREE LOVES.) 

The story is set in France. A young man named Henry (Uno Henning) agrees to marry the daughter of a businessman who will financially help the company his family is in control of. While boarding the train to take him and his new wife on their honeymoon, Henry sees a gorgeous woman (Marlene Dietrich) and is instantly smitten with her. The woman, named Stascha, encourages Henry's attentions and begs him to save her from her older "companion", an intense-looking fellow named Dr. Karoff (Fritz Kortner). Henry is so infatuated with Stascha, he abandons his bride, gets off the train, and follows the woman and Karoff to a swanky resort hotel. Stascha tells Karoff that Henry is her cousin, while Henry makes plans to take her away....but Stascha is more than just a damsel in distress, and Karoff won't let her go so easily. 

It's understandable if one thinks that THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR was made after THE BLUE ANGEL, or that it was directed by Josef von Sternberg. Marlene Dietrich gets several exquisite close-ups here, and there's even a couple shots of her legs, which were already famous in Germany. Dietrich's acting is not as stylized as it would be when she worked with von Sternberg. She's not exactly a vamp or a temptress, but she's someone who can't exactly be trusted. Director Kurt Bernhardt (who would later go to Hollywood and work under the name Curtis Bernhardt) makes full use of Dietrich's captivating beauty. 

Bernhardt also gives plenty of visual spice to what is a simple story by injecting many unusual shot compositions and making use of a constantly roving camera. Uno Henning is quite nervy as the besotted Henry, while Fritz Kortner is grandly mysterious as the chilling yet tragic Karoff. 

The disc cover for this Blu-ray states that the transfer used here is from a recent restoration. There's a few scant moments of print damage, but overall the picture quality is excellent. The intertitles are in German, but English subtitles are available. The running time here is 77 minutes--I had never seen this film before, so I can only assume it is the most complete version. This is a Region A release. 

Kino has provided a fine new score for THE WOMAN ONE LONGS FOR by Pascal Schumacher, and it can be listened to in either 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo. There's also a brand new audio commentary by Gaylyn Studlar, who goes into various aspects of the production, and discusses the lives of members of the cast and crew. (Surprisingly, she spends more time talking about Fritz Kortner than Marlene Dietrich.) 

Kino has been releasing rare and obscure silent films on home video for years, and they've also gotten a lot of my money by doing so. What makes this release special is the chance to see Marlene Dietrich as a silent film actress. (As far as I know, none of the other silent films Dietrich appeared in have ever been released on disc--at least not in the U.S.) This Blu-ray will be a must for Dietrich fans. 



Sunday, June 13, 2021

NOBODY"S BABY

 





In March I wrote a blog post on a film called KELLY THE SECOND, which was a full-length feature produced by Hal Roach. NOBODY'S BABY, a 1937 movie made after KELLY THE SECOND, was also produced by Roach and released by MGM. This one has Patsy Kelly and Lyda Roberti, who were paired up for two short subjects from the Roach studio after the death of Patsy's onscreen partner Thelma Todd. 

Roach hoped he could continue the Kelly-Roberti team in features, but NOBODY'S BABY, while amusing at times, isn't nearly as funny or entertaining as any one of the Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts-Patsy Kelly shorts. Patsy and Lyda Roberti play two mismatched ladies who wind up living and then working together as nurses in training. The duo encounter a bit of romance with a reporter (Robert Armstrong) and a detective (Lynne Overman). They also get involved with the problems of a professional dancing couple who are secretly married. The husband (Don Alvarado) does not want the public to know about their personal situation, while the wife (Rosina Lawrence) leaves her partner before she has a chance to tell him she's pregnant. The lady winds up having her baby in secret, at the hospital where Patsy and Lyda happen to work at. The girls volunteer to take care of the baby, and of course all sorts of misunderstandings and complications ensue. 

In the two-reelers she appeared in with Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly was usually the cause of all the comic troubles in the plot. Here she's the leader of the duo, with much of the humor (such as it is) deriving from the Polish-born Roberti's mangling and confusion of the English language. When she's not yelling at somebody, Patsy spends most of her time being exasperated over Roberti's actions--the two have an almost Moe Howard-Curly Howard relationship. Like Thelma Todd, Lyda Roberti was an attractive blonde--but here she's a very dopey one, which Thelma was decidedly not. Roberti does her best with what is a one-note role, but her character winds up being a bit annoying. 

Three writers are credited on NOBODY'S BABY, but that certainly didn't help out the gags here--there's nothing in this film that winds up being remotely memorable. The idea of having Patsy and Lyda training as nurses sounds promising, but the script doesn't take full advantage of this. There's a few songs (including one that uses the title of the film) and a sequence that shows the dance team in action, but these numbers feel like padding. The movie was directed by Roach veteran Gus Meins. 

Sadly, Lyda Roberti had something else in common with Thelma Todd--an early death. Roberti died in 1938 of a massive heart attack. Patsy Kelly and Roberti might have been able to make it as a comedy team in features if they had better material than they were given in NOBODY'S BABY. The major "what if" is what would have happened if Thelma Todd had lived, and gotten to be in full-length features with Patsy. Having Lyda Roberti be a dumb blonde was very limiting--Thelma had far more comic versatility. 


Saturday, June 12, 2021

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD On Blu-ray From Severin

 




Severin's THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE Blu-ray box set features the first authorized home video release of the 1964 film CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD. The movie was filmed in Italy, but the main creative forces behind it, producer Paul Maslansky and writer/director Warren Kiefer, were Americans. 

Somewhere in Napoleonic Europe, a traveling theatrical troupe is asked to preform for a strange man named Count Drago (Christopher Lee). The troupe arrives at Drago's remote castle and finds that the Count is something of a scientist. He's perfected a way to preserve animals--and now he's attempting to do the same thing to human beings, and he's determined to have the members of the troupe "assist" in this endeavor. 

Despite its late-night spook show reputation, CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD has a definite art-house feel to it, mainly due to the atmospheric black & white cinematography by Aldo Tonti. There's almost no gore or sudden shocks, and the story has an almost languid pace to it. The soundtrack music by Angelo Lavagnino (which is on a CD included with the Blu-ray) adds to the eclectic mood. 

The role of Count Drago is one of the best that Christopher Lee played during what is called his mid-1960s European period. The Count is not a vampire, or a supernatural creature...he's a rather eccentric scientist who is a genial if austere host. Lee makes a major impression as Drago without going overboard. Thankfully the actor was able to dub in his own voice for this production. 

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also notable for being the film debut of Donald Sutherland, who actually plays two roles. His main character is a gendarme who comes off like a 19th Century Barney Fife, and he's also an old witch. Even in the early part of his career Sutherland (whose own voice is used for the gendarme role) is able to always draw the viewer's attention. Euro Gothic veteran actor Luciano Pigozzi (the Italian Peter Lorre) has a small but important role. Future cult director Michael Reeves was also involved in this film as an assistant (but he didn't have as much influence on it as some film geeks think). 

The disc case for this Blu-ray states that this is the original uncut version of CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, and that it has been scanned in 4K. The picture quality is excellent, as is the sound. The original soundtrack CD has excellent audio quality as well. The disc case also shows that the disc is coded A,B, and C. 

Severin has provided plenty of worthy extras for this movie. There's an interview with producer Paul Maslansky that lasts about an hour long, and covers his entire career in this film industry. It's a very rambling talk--Maslansky has plenty of intriguing stories to tell, but it takes him a while to get to the point. Another program has Italian film historian Roberto Curti discussing the life and work of Warren Kiefer. Curti dispels the various rumors that have cropped up about Keifer over the years. Kiefer did exist, he was an American, and yes, Donald Sutherland named one of his sons after him. 

There's also two new audio commentaries. Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth provide a lively discussion in which they examine the various urban legends that have sprung up about the film, and they cover numerous aspects of Christopher Lee's film career. The other commentary, which I have not listened to yet, is by Kat Ellinger. 

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD is a film that has long deserved a proper official home video release. It has a far different vibe than most low-budget fantastic films made during this period, and it's a treat for Christopher Lee fans. If Severin had just released this as a standalone disc, it would be a big deal--but it's part of a set that contains several goodies relating to Christopher Lee. 

Saturday, June 5, 2021

THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE COLLECTION On Blu-ray From Severin

 





Christopher Lee is a legend of English Gothic cinema--but he's also a legend of Euro Gothic cinema, which is made abundantly clear in this new fantastic Blu-ray set from Severin. 

THE EUROCRYPT OF CHRISTOPHER LEE COLLECTION collects five rare and somewhat obscure films that were made in continental Europe and featured Lee. The set also includes a 24-episode TV series produced in Poland called THEATER MACABRE, in which Lee did the hosting duties for each story. And...there's a 100-page booklet on Lee's European film adventures by genre expert Jonathan Rigby. 

The five films are SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE, CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE, CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, CHALLENGE THE DEVIL, and THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM. Each movie gets its own disc case, with special cover artwork specifically for this release. Each movie also gets plenty of extra features, ranging from new audio commentaries, trailers, featurettes, etc. CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD comes with a CD containing the original music soundtrack composed by Angelo F. Lavagnino. 

CHALLENGE THE DEVIL contains an extras disc called RELICS FROM THE CRYPT, which contains a number of interviews of Lee throughout his life. RELICS FROM THE CRYPT also contains a 1964 Swiss documentary short called HORROR that has jaw-dropping behind the scenes footage from THE GORGON and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, along with interviews of Lee, Boris Karloff, and makeup man Roy Ashton. 



The 100-page booklet is NOT just a cut-down version of Jonathan Rigby's earlier volume on Lee's screen career. The booklet thoroughly examines the films Lee made in Europe, while placing them in context with the rest of the actor's work. There's also plenty of great stills here, most of which I've never seen. 

I've only had this set for a few days, so needless to say, I've barely scratched the surface of it. Eventually I will be doing blog posts on each individual film, and the extras accompanying it....but it's going to take me plenty of time to get to everything here. But I'm certainly going to have fun delving into this set. 

Any one who reads this blog knows how much of a fan I am of Christopher Lee. I ordered this set as soon as I found out about it, and I'm sure it will make my Top Five releases of 2021 list. Some may quibble with the titles included here--but for my sake that's what makes this set so enticing. These movies have basically never gotten the true high end treatment on home video, especially for the North American market. These are not a bunch of Hammer films being put out on Blu-ray for the third or fourth time--these are productions that even the most hardcore of Lee fans (such as myself) have very little experience with, if any. Home video is at its best when it showcases this type of product, and Severin has knocked it out of the park with this set. 


Monday, May 31, 2021

TIMESLIP (AKA THE ATOMIC MAN)

 




TIMESLIP is a 1955 British science-fiction film known as THE ATOMIC MAN in the U.S. There's not much sci-fi here--the movie is more a tale of Cold War industrial espionage. 

A man is dragged out of the Thames, with a bullet in his back. Doctors save the man, but for seven and a half seconds he is clinically dead on the operating table. The police have no idea who the man is, but a noisy magazine reporter named Delaney (Gene Nelson) recognizes him as esteemed scientist Steven Rayner (Peter Arne). However, another man claiming to be Steven Rayner is working at a nearby research facility--and he looks exactly like the man pulled from the Thames. The mysterious man from the river gives strange answers to the questions the authorities put to him, and it is soon discovered that the man is seven and a half seconds in the future--exactly the same amount of time he was "dead" while being operated on. Delaney and his photographer girlfriend (Faith Domergue) continue to investigate, and find that the real Rayner is a pawn in a scheme to protect the finances of a large corporation. 

TIMESLIP tries to have a Quatermass-like feel, with black & white shadowy compositions, and a reality based look at a fantastic situation. The lead character, however, isn't a crusading scientist, but the annoying reporter played by Gene Nelson. With his Leo Gorcey-style hat, trench coat, and brash personality, Nelson here resembles a character from a 1930s or 1940s Poverty Row feature. In the climax Nelson's Delaney turns into an action hero, taking on all the bad guys by himself--a sequence that is hard to buy into. Science-fiction stalwarts such as Richard Carlson or Richard Denning would have been a much better choice for the role of Delaney. 

Faith Domergue has very little to do in this film, other than be constantly exasperated by Delaney (an attitude no doubt shared by the audience). One wonders what her character even sees in the guy. None of the supporting cast get much of a chance to shine, but Vic Perry as the main bad guy does have a resemblance to Laird Cregar. "Carry On" veteran Charles Hawtrey and Paul Hardtmuth, who played Professor Bernstein in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, have small roles. 

The premise of a man existing seven seconds ahead in the future is an intriguing one, but the script for TIMESLIP doesn't make effective use of it. The explanation for why Rayner has this condition actually comes off pretty well (hint--it has to do with radiation). The film should have spent much more time on Rayner's status instead of Delaney's antics. TIMESLIP is unique in that the bad guys are working for a major corporation, instead of being aliens or spies from a foreign power. 

TIMESLIP was directed by Ken Hughes, who would go on the make a few notable big-budget pictures in the 1960s, such as CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. He didn't have much of a budget here--there's no major special effects sequences, and the sets are very standard for the 1950s. The story would have served better as the basis for an episode of a TV anthology series. 



Sunday, May 23, 2021

NIGHT OF THE EAGLES

 





A Jess Franco movie starring Christopher Lee is one thing. But....a Jess Franco movie starring Christopher Lee--and Mark Hamill?? And one where Hamill plays a Wehrmacht officer during WWII?? The movie is NIGHT OF THE EAGLES, an extremely obscure (and extremely low budget) European production from 1989. 

Top-billed Christopher Lee plays Walter Strauss, a proud, successful German businessman. The year is 1939, and Strauss believes the coming war will make his country rich and powerful. Strauss' young attractive daughter Lillian (Alexandra Erlich) is torn between two men who are in love with her--Peter (Mark Hamill), who is already in the military, and Karl (Ramon Estevez, billed as Ramon Sheen), a composer who has no love for war. Peter and Karl are both sent off to fight on the Eastern front, while Lillian, after a brief stint as a cabaret performer, joins the military to contribute to the war effort. Lillian experiences a number of horrible events while near the front lines, while also becoming estranged from her father. Peter and Karl both come to tragic ends, as does the Strauss family and the Third Reich. 

Jess Franco directed and co-wrote this film, so one would naturally expect a lurid Naziplotation flick--but this isn't. The movie is one of the more "normal" stories Franco ever made (this film could play uncut on prime time American TV). The more rabid among the director's fans would no doubt say that it's too normal. The movie revolves around Alexandra Erlich as Lillian, and what happens to her is standard melodramatic stuff. Even the scenes of her as a cabaret performer are rather generic (especially for a director like Franco). Erlich isn't terrible--she's better than the script--but she's no Marlene Dietrich, and she doesn't have the screen presence of legendary Franco leading ladies such as Maria Rohm and Soledad Miranda. 

Christopher Lee gives a serious, committed performance as a distinguished German patriarch who sadly sees his entire world slowly crumble around him. One wishes Lee had more screen time--his character is far more interesting than anyone else in the story. Mark Hamill comes off better than expected, although seeing him decked out in a German military uniform is disconcerting. The major weak link in this film is Ramon Estevez (Martin Sheen's other other son), who is totally unconvincing as a WWII era German. 

One would assume that Jess Franco wanted NIGHT OF THE EAGLES to be a serious WWII drama, but he didn't have the budget to pull it off. The war scenes in this picture appear to come from other films, and they are haphazardly edited into the main story. A number of extras and background characters have 1980s hairstyles and wear 1980s fashions, while accents are all over the place (I'm sure most of the dialogue was dubbed in). Franco does have to be given credit for not portraying any of the main characters as goose-stepping over-the-top maniacs--for the most part they are believable human beings (of course in today's political climate some might say that's a detriment). NIGHT OF THE EAGLES is also known as LA CHUTE DES AIGLES and FALL OF THE EAGLES (the latter is a much more fitting title). 

A company called Full Moon Features has released NIGHT OF THE EAGLES on both DVD and Blu-ray. I purchased the DVD version from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers at a discount price. The disc case claims that the transfer is totally uncut, and remastered from the original 35mm camera negative. The movie looks very inconsistent here--some sequences are better than others, and the stock footage stands out like a sore thumb. The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and some of the shot compositions seem a bit off (insert your own "Well, Jess Franco was the director" joke here). The running time is 85 minutes--as with any Franco film, your guess is as good as mine on whether it is the "uncut" version. 

Two sound mixes are offered--5.1 and 2.0 stereo. I watched the film with the 5.1 mix, and if anything it exposed the weakness of the material--there's an audible hiss that runs throughout the entire film. The DVD had no extras pertaining to the title. This is a feature that cries out for an informed audio commentary, as I'm sure it had a complicated production history. 

I knew absolutely nothing about NIGHT OF THE EAGLES before I watched it for the first time. In his book on Christopher Lee's film career, Jonathan Rigby only gives it a brief mention. I also own a couple books on WWII movies that make no mention of it at all. It will get some attention due to the presence of Lee and Mark Hamill, but the two men are only together in a brief scene, and I don't think they even exchanged dialogue. One assumes that since this is a Jess Franco movie, it will be either outlandish or ridiculous--but this is merely mediocre. 


Saturday, May 22, 2021

WILD GEESE II On Blu-ray From Kino

 





Made in a decade known for outlandish, cheesy action flicks, WILD GEESE II (1985) is a rather straightforward adventure/espionage tale that might have been more entertaining if it had been cheesier. 

In 1982, a large news network hires mercenary John Haddad (Scott Glenn) to spring Rudolf Hess (Laurence Olivier) out of Spandau Prison in Berlin. The network executives believe the elderly Nazi Hess has plenty of secrets to reveal. Haddad reluctantly takes the job, accompanied by a network producer (Barbara Carrera). Haddad gathers a team together, including his close friend (Edward Fox). But there's plenty of others who want to use Hess for their own ends, and Haddad also has old enemies gunning for him. 

The original 1978 THE WILD GEESE was a financial hit for producer Euan Lloyd, and he had long wanted to do a sequel. Lloyd had even signed up Richard Burton to reprise his role from THE WILD GEESE, but the actor died right before production was to begin. Edward Fox was brought on, but instead of playing Burton's role, he plays Burton's brother (honestly the character could have been anybody). 

WILD GEESE II is competently made, but there's nothing in it that particularly stands out, other than the plot and the cast. Robert Webber plays a network executive, Patrick Stewart has a small role as a Russian general, and Ingrid Pitt is one of Haddad's enemies (her character is billed as "The Hooker"). Laurence Olivier doesn't show up until the very end, portraying a feeble and confused Hess. Scott Glenn overdoes the "inscrutable taciturn action hero" bit, so much so that it's hard to get all that worked up over what happens to him. 

It's also hard for a viewer to get all that worked up over the main characters' goal of breaking a notorious Nazi out of prison. There's plenty of complications put in Haddad's way (the author of the book the original THE WILD GEESE was based on, Daniel Carney, and that film's screenwriter, Reginald Rose, provided the story here as well). Seemingly everyone in Berlin knows what Haddad is up to, and wants to either help or hinder him. There's even a unlikely romance between Glenn and Barbara Carrera (they even get a bedroom scene together). All of these things just slow the movie down--it clocks in at a little over two hours. 

WILD GEESE II was directed by Peter Hunt, with cinematography by Michael Reed. The duo had done the same chores for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, a movie much better than this one. WILD GEESE II isn't bad, but it's a very standard outing for an era dominated by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Cannon Films. The movie does make extensive use of various Berlin locations--this is a great time capsule of what the city was like in the 1980s before the Wall came down. 

Kino claims that the transfer used for this Blu-ray comes from a brand new 2K master, but from my point of view the picture quality looks a bit flat. The movie is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. 

The main extra is a new audio commentary featuring Steve Mitchell and Howard S. Berger. The duo are fans of the film, and they point out how different it is from most action thrillers of the era. A trailer for the film is included as well, narrated by Patrick Allen. 

WILD GEESE II is really just a sequel in name only--it has very little in common with THE WILD GEESE. Film buffs will be more interested in the cast and crew, while fans of Cold War era-adventure tales should note that there's not much high-powered action in it. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

DARK PLACES

 




Until recently, I had only seen this 1973 film once--on a "CBS Late Night at the Movies" broadcast, probably sometime in the 1980s. I didn't remember much about it, other than I was disappointed with Christopher Lee's small role. My latest viewing of DARK PLACES didn't improve my judgement of it. 

An old man named Andrew Marr dies at an English asylum, and he leaves his abandoned manor to an Edward Foster (Robert Hardy). Foster finds out from the late man's solicitor (Herbert Lom) that Marr may have hidden over 200,000 pounds somewhere on the estate. Marr's old residence is reputed to be haunted--the man's wife, two children, and a governess were presumed to have been murdered there. Edward intends to fix the place up, while searching for the loot. A local doctor (Christopher Lee) and his sister (Joan Collins) want the money as well--the sister starts to seduce Edward. Strange occurrences start happening inside the house, and Edward begins to have flashbacks in which he "becomes" Andrew Marr in the past. Is someone trying to drive Edward mad--or is he loony to begin with?

DARK PLACES has a lot of notable actors in the cast, and it is directed by Don Sharp, who made a number of excellent English Gothic films in the 1960s. But the film's script is very thin--it feels more like an episode of a British TV mystery show than a full-fledged feature. Lee and Lom have very little to do (their parts could have been played by anybody). Collins gives another one of her patented "conniving tease" performances. 

For better or worse, this is Robert Hardy's show. The problem is that Edward Foster is not an engaging enough character to maintain a viewer's interest (he's as mysterious as the main story). There's a lot of footage of Hardy wandering around the Marr house, reacting to things that can't be seen. Hardy also plays the younger Andrew Marr in the flashback scenes, which are confusing. (In these sequences Jean Marsh plays Marr's wife, and Jane Birkin plays the young governess Marr is having an affair with.) 

The flashback scenes seem to suggest that Edward is somehow possessed by Marr's spirit, but this isn't made very clear. It's also never explained why Edward looks exactly like the painting of a younger Marr that hangs inside the manor. I expected a twist ending where a rational explanation is given for all the events, but it never comes. The climax provides more questions than answers. 

There was one thing about DARK PLACES that stuck out for me. At one point Edward is breaking through a wall, searching for the money, when a group of fake bats fly out of it. I immediately thought of the climax of another, more famous Don Sharp-directed film--Hammer's THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. 

Considering all the talent involved in it, DARK PLACES should have turned out to be a much better film. 



Friday, May 14, 2021

ARIZONA

 





ARIZONA is a 1940 Western, produced by Columbia, and starring one of my favorites, Jean Arthur. 

During the Civil War era, a tough, independent-minded woman named Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) starts a freight company in the growing community of Tucson. Phoebe is an ambitious woman who goes after what she wants, including a handsome cowboy named Peter Muncie (William Holden). Phoebe eventually convinces Pete to settle down with her and start up a cattle ranch--but the couple must fight off a conniving fellow named Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) who wants to put them out of business. 

Jean Arthur had already played Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille's THE PLAINSMAN, and Phoebe Titus is a very similar role. Actually Arthur's appearance in ARIZONA is far more down-to-earth than her Calamity Jane. Despite the appearance of Holden, Arthur is the true star of the film, and her Phoebe is the driving force of the narrative. Phoebe wears the pants (literally and figuratively) in the relationship with Pete, and Arthur's natural spunk fits the character like a glove. The only major Hollywood actress of the period who could have played the role of Phoebe without looking silly would have been Barbara Stanwyck. 

This was one of William Holden's earliest films, and he's very young here (believe it or not, Arthur was 18 years older than him). The actor displays none of the world-weary cynicism that would mark his more famous film roles of the 1950s. He's good as Pete, but this is Arthur's movie all the way. 

Warren William makes more of an impression than Holden in the role of the main villain. Instead of being over the top, William gives Carteret a snarky, sarcastic air, and makes the fellow a viable threat. The climax sets up a showdown between Carteret and Pete--in reality Phoebe should have been the one to get in a shoot-out with the bad guy (Arthur spends a lot of screen time here toting a shotgun). The supporting cast has plenty of grizzled character actors, such as Porter Hall, Edgar Buchanan, Byron Foulger, and Regis Toomey. 

It appears that ARIZONA was meant to be an epic of the Old West. It doesn't have that generic Hollywood Western look--there's a realism to the production design and the costumes, and there's plenty of background detail. (There's also plenty of facial hair among the male members of the cast.) The movie clocks in at a few minutes past two hours, which is a mammoth running time for a 1940 film. There's a Civil War subplot, problems with Native Americans, a cattle drive--I'm surprised that Columbia didn't make this in color, to give it an even more spectacular feel. Director Wesley Ruggles handles all the various elements very well (he had directed the Oscar-winning big-budget Western CIMARRON in 1931). 

ARIZONA is a prime showcase for Jean Arthur, and it's another example of a strong independent female leading role during the classic Hollywood period. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

THE PASSAGE (1979)

 





THE PASSAGE is another one of those 1970s international productions that have a action-war element to the storyline and a star-studded cast. It was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had made two excellent WWII films--ICE COLD IN ALEX and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. THE PASSAGE is a far cry from those films, and despite the poster above, it's not a battle-filled exciting adventure. 

Sometime during the Second World War, a Basque sheepherder (Anthony Quinn) is hired by the French Resistance to guide an American professor wanted by the SS (James Mason) and his family through the mountains into Spain. The shepherd doubts the plan will succeed--the Professor and his wife (Patricia Neal) are elderly, and their son and daughter (Paul Clemens and Kay Lenz) are not very enthusiastic. Nevertheless the shepherd risks his life to bring the family to safety, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of a fanatical SS officer (Malcolm McDowell) determined to catch them. 

THE PASSAGE tries to be a nail-biting thriller, but whatever suspense there might have been is ruined by Malcolm McDowell's ridiculously bizarre performance. One expects a bit of weirdness whenever McDowell shows up on-screen, but he's so loopy here that one wonders whether the actor thought he was appearing in a Mel Brooks movie. 

The film is also hurt by the fact that we get almost no information about the main characters--we never even learn the shepherd's name. We are never even told why the SS is so obsessed over capturing an old, tweedy professor. Because of this, the viewer isn't able to get fully involved in the characters' plight. 

Quinn's shepherd is helped along the way by a French Resistance member played by Michael Lonsdale and a gypsy camp leader played by Christopher Lee. Both men receive a horrible fate from McDowell's SS officer. Lee gets special billing in the credits, but his fans will note how small (though important) his role is. (I'm sure that Lee at least was happy that he didn't have to play a Nazi this time). 

Quinn, Mason, and Neal are all very good, but it's hard for them to make an impression when so much of the film is focused on McDowell and his psychotic antics. The SS officer gets to torture people and he also gets to rape the professor's daughter in a sequence that is crass and unnecessary. 

Michael Reed (THE GORGON, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE) was the cinematographer on this film, but the visuals do not resemble his earlier efforts. For most of the time the picture looks dark and murky, and there is a lot of handheld camera work. (I do have to say that I viewed this film on the Tubi streaming channel, but it was a decent uncut widescreen print.) Michael J. Lewis does provide a music score which harkens back to the WWII action-adventure films of the 1960s. Maurice Binder, who is best known as the creator of most of the title sequences for the James Bond films, was an associate producer on this movie. 

THE PASSAGE does feature some impressive Pyrenees locations, but the film is notable for all the wrong reasons. If it didn't have so many gratuitous elements, and a more realistic portrayal of the main villain, it might have turned out to be a decent WWII melodrama. 




Thursday, May 6, 2021

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE

 




The best film in the 3-disc "Carole Lombard Collection II" Blu-ray set from Kino is HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, a 1935 romantic comedy co-starring Fred MacMurray and directed by Mitchell Leisen. 

Carole Lombard plays Regi Allen, a manicurist at a ritzy hotel. Regi is unhappy with her life and hopes to snag a rich husband. She encounters Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a wealthy man living at the hotel who is paralyzed from the waist down, and Theodore Drew (Fred MacMurray), a gadabout whose family has fallen on hard times. Regi and Theodore are attracted to each other, but he's engaged to marry an heiress. Allen wants to marry Regi, but he realizes that she and Theodore are meant for each other, despite the both of them supposedly wanting money over love. 

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE is usually lumped into the "screwball comedy" category, but I would define it as more thoughtful than screwball. There's very few outlandish moments here--Mitchell Leisen plays things for the most part in a subtle manner, with several intimate close-ups. Regi, Theodore, and Allen are not caricatures, they are real human beings with real emotions and feelings. 

Lombard is delightful as Regi--the actress is very natural and unaffected here. She tries to act as if she's a cynical golddigger who wants the easy life, but she isn't (something that Ralph Bellamy's Allen surmises right away). Regi is actually a hard-working responsible person who just yearns for more out of her situation. She's attracted to Theodore, but put off by the fact that he appears more cynical than she does. Ted has never really worked for a living, nor does he want to--a fact that exasperates Regi. This was Lombard and MacMurray's first film together, and they make a great screen couple. This was also very early in Fred MacMurray's acting career, and in later interviews he gave all the credit to Lombard in helping him come off as well as he does. 

Ralph Bellamy plays the "other guy" role again, but he almost winds up stealing the film as the kindly Macklyn. (In all honesty I thought Regi would have been better off if she had wound up with him--but there's no way any 1935 movie made in Hollywood would have allowed a star like Lombard to be with a guy in a wheelchair at the end.) Marie Prevost is notable as Regi's best friend. 

The transfer of HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE on this Blu-ray is very good, although there are times where it seems too bright. The main extra is a new audio commentary by Allen Arkush and Daniel Kremer, who also did the honors for THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS in this same Kino set. The duo give a lively talk, and they spend a lot of time discussing Mitchell Leisen. 

To sum up the "Carole Lombard Collection II" Blu-ray set--it has better films than the first set, with both THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS and HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE being among Carole's top films. It also has what I feel are better audio commentaries. 

It is disappointing that all three of the films in this set had been released on home video before--there's still plenty of Lombard movies that have never gotten an official release, especially from her Paramount period. Hopefully if Kino comes out with a third Lombard set, they will pick some of these titles, no matter how obscure they might be. 

If one is a major Carole Lombard fan, this certainly is a worthy purchase--and, if enough people buy this set, Kino might actually decide to make more of them. 








Sunday, May 2, 2021

WIVES UNDER SUSPICION

 




In February I wrote a blog post on Kino's Blu-ray of James Whale's THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR. That 1933 film was remade by Whale, and Universal, in 1938 under the title WIVES UNDER SUSPICION, which I saw for the first time last night. 

THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR is a tale about a defense lawyer, played by Frank Morgan, who is defending a man who killed his younger, beautiful wife in a fit of jealous anger. The lawyer begins to feel that his own younger, beautiful wife is cheating on him, so he begins to believe that if he can get his client off on a charge of temporary insanity, he might be able to dispose of his own spouse the same way. 

As I said in my post on it, THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR is more of a "Will he do it?" than a whodunit. WIVES UNDER SUSPICION flips the scenario a bit--the lead character is a district attorney who is in charge of prosecuting a man who has killed his cheating wife. 

WIVES UNDER SUSPICION stars Warren William as hard-charging D.A. Jim Stowell, a man who takes great pleasure in punishing criminals. He even has an abacus (made up of tiny skulls) on his office desk, so he can keep track of all the people he's sent to the electric chair! Jim's obsession over his rough brand of justice makes his young glamorous wife Lucy (Gail Patrick) uneasy. Stowell is about to take a much-needed vacation with his wife when a meek professor (Ralph Morgan, the brother of Frank Morgan) is brought in after killing his unfaithful spouse. The professor tells Jim about how he was driven to murder when his wife refused a kiss before her vanity mirror--and the D.A. starts to suspect that the same thing will happen between him and Lucy. Jim's suspicions start to affect his mind and manner. 

According to James Curtis' fine biography of James Whale, it was the director himself who suggested remaking THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR. It says a lot about Whale's position with Universal at the time that he was doing a minor remake of one of his earlier films instead of working on something fresh and inventive. WIVES UNDER SUSPICION runs about 69 minutes, and it feels like a B movie instead of a major A-list production. 

THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR was a moody, intriguing Pre-Code thriller, set in Vienna, with several impressive visual elements. WIVES UNDER SUSPICION is set in contemporary America, and it doesn't have James Whale's usual quirky touches. There's nothing here to rate it above the dozens of other programmers coming out of the Hollywood studios at the time, and the ending wraps things up way too easily.

The best thing about the film is Warren William's performance. The actor's energetic arrogance is perfect for Jim Stowall, and while the character may be unlikable, he's never unwatchable. Gail Patrick is merely okay as his wife, and while there are plenty of familiar character actors in support (such as Samuel S. Hinds and Milburn Stone), none of them stand out. Way too much footage is given to Lillian Yarbo as the Stowalls' annoying "comedic" African-American maid. 

If you didn't know that WIVES UNDER SUSPICION was directed by James Whale, you certainly wouldn't have guessed it. It's hard to believe that the man who made the likes of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and SHOW BOAT could have turned out such an adequate film. It does need to be mentioned that Whale was quite disillusioned by the people who were running Universal at this time. After WIVES UNDER SUSPICION, James Whale had only a few films left in his erratic but sometimes brilliant movie directing career.   


Saturday, May 1, 2021

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST

 





The next film I will be examining from Kino's new "Carole Lombard Collection II" Blu-ray set is LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST, a 1936 romantic comedy that is not one of the actress's better movies. 

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST was made at Universal, and it was directed by Walter Lang, who would soon marry Madalynne Fields--who happened to be Carole Lombard's best friend and confidant. The film used cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff and costume designer Travis Banton, who had both done much to show off Lombard's beauty in her films for Paramount. Unfortunately what was needed was some screenwriters from Paramount. The comedy in LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST isn't very comedic, and the characters are more annoying than interesting. 

Socialite Kay Colby (Carole Lombard) is engaged to the hard-working Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero), but she's still being pursued by rich businessman Scott Miller (Preston Foster). Miller even goes to the trouble of buying the company that Bill works for, and then has him transferred to Japan. Scott then drives Kay crazy with his attentions, but when he stops, she feels disappointed. Kay then agrees to marry Bill, but he decides to bring Bill back to see what feelings she has for him. 

The story is basically about two people who go out of their way to annoy one another instead of just having a normal relationship. This happens a lot in romantic comedies, especially older ones, and in the right circumstances it can work. But here the mind games Kay and Scott play on each other become tiresome, and the supposed humor isn't all that funny. Lombard's appealing personality helps greatly, but her character still comes off as a flighty rich girl (she has a butler and a maid) who doesn't have anything better to do. Preston Foster doesn't come off too well in a light comedic role, and even Cesar Romero as the other man isn't very likable. 

I have to discuss the ad art used on the LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST disc cover. I'm surprised it was used for this release, but it certainly does get attention. (In the actual film, Lombard is popped in the right eye--and not by any of the leading men, but by accident in a bar fight.) The art makes one think that LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST is a wild, slapstick screwball farce, but that picture has more vitality to it than the entire screenplay. 

The transfer Kino has used for LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST is mediocre. It has a dull look to it--the black & white picture lacks sparkle--and it has a lot of scratches on it. The main extra is a new audio commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Joshua Nelson. The duo spend a fair amount of time discussing the image used on the disc cover, and they go into how Lombard's persona has been analyzed by various authors--but they don't have all that much to say about LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST. 

I'm a bit disappointed that Kino included LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST on this set. The movie has been released on home video before, and there's several better Lombard movies that could have been taken its place. LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST runs only 70 minutes, and it feels like a B picture instead of a major production for a big Hollywood star. 




Monday, April 26, 2021

THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS

 




Kino has released the "Carol Lombard Collection II", a Blu-ray set containing three of the great lady's films. As in the first set, released last summer, each movie gets its own disc case. The three films in the set are HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST, and THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS. 

I have to start off by saying that all three films in this second collection have been released on home video before (I was hoping we'd get some titles that have never had an official release). But any Lombard product on Blu-ray is a plus. I'll be writing a blog post on all the films in the second set. 

We start off with what I consider is one of the most underrated films Lombard starred in--THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS, a 1936 film made by Paramount and directed by William K. Howard. This is not a wacky screwball farce--it is a lighthearted mystery. 

Lombard stars again here with Fred MacMurray, after they appeared in the excellent HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE. Carole plays Brooklyn-born would-be actress Wanda Nash. Wanda is so desperate to get a movie studio contract, she poses as a Swedish royal named "Princess Olga". The "Princess" takes a suite on a luxury liner going from France to New York. There she encounters bandleader (and concertina player) King Mantell (Fred MacMurray). Unsurprisingly, King becomes smitten with "Olga", and he tries to get to know her better, while Wanda, afraid of giving herself away, tries to avoid falling for him. Five internationally famous detectives happen to be traveling on the ship, along with an escaped criminal. The body of a blackmailer winds up in Wanda's suite, and both she and King become suspects. The duo attempt to avoid being charged with murder, and getting murdered themselves. 

This is the second of four films that Lombard and MacMurray appeared in together, and they make a great screen team. (MacMurray was one of Carole's best overall leading men.) Lombard is in fine form here, playing the "Princess" as a Greta Garbo type (with a touch of Dietrich thrown in). Other performers would have overdone the Princess bit to the point of absurdity, but Lombard does it in a way that is funny without being cartoonish. Ted Tetzlaff's photography and Travis Banton's costumes make Carole look exquisite (although one has to wonder how an unemployed actress is able to have such a fantastic wardrobe). 

MacMurray is very good here--his King is a good guy, but he also has a bit of a shady past. Both stars are given older sidekicks in the picture--Carole is traveling with Alison Skipworth, and Fred's buddy is William Frawley. The two veterans are quite amusing in support. 

Some have said that the comedy and mystery elements do not mesh well here together. I happen to disagree. The five inspectors (played by character actors Douglas Dumbrille, Lumsden Hare, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer, and Tetsu Komai) could have rated a film of their very own. The movie doesn't play the mystery elements as a joke--many of the scenes play out on shadowy deck corridors. When Lombard and MacMurray are in danger, they react like believable human beings. 

THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS isn't on the same level as, say, MY MAN GODFREY, but it's a fun, entertaining movie that showcases Carole Lombard particularly well. 

Kino's Blu-ray of THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS presents a very sharp transfer that shows off the black & white cinematography. The sound is distinct and clear. 

The main extra is a new audio commentary by filmmakers Allan Arkush and Daniel Kremer. While listening to them it doesn't take long to realize that they both are hard-core classic Hollywood buffs who know their stuff. The duo enjoy themselves immensely while discussing the cast & crew of the film. There's also some trailers from other Lombard films released by Kino. 





Sunday, April 25, 2021

THE HIGH COMMAND

 





One great thing about having a Roku device is all the free movie channels one has access to from it. I've found plenty of obscure, rare films on these channels--titles that I think are far more interesting than the brand-name stuff on HBO Max or Netflix. 

I recently discovered THE HIGH COMMAND, a 1937 British film starring Lionel Atwill. Ironically, this was the only English-made movie Atwill ever appeared in (the actor was born in Croydon in 1885). 

In THE HIGH COMMAND Atwill plays a British army officer named Sir John Sangye. At the start of the film, he's posted in Ireland during the troubles of 1921. During an attack by Irish rebels, Sangye is confronted by another British officer. Sangye has had an affair with the officer's wife, and he's also the father of what is presumed to be the man's daughter. Sangye shoots the man in self-defense, and blames his death on the Irish rebels. An officer named Carson becomes suspicious after examining the man's body. 

15 years later, Carson arrives at a military post in West Africa, where he finds Sangye, now a general, to be the commanding officer. Carson also finds that Sangye's now grown daughter (who he calls his step-daughter) has no idea about her true parentage, or what happened in 1921. Carson starts to annoy her, while at the same time he develops an interest in the glamorous wife (Lucie Mannheim) of a local industrialist. Carson's young cousin and fellow officer (James Mason) also is attracted to the woman. Carson is eventually shot and killed, and his cousin becomes the main suspect...but during the trial Sangye's past starts to come up. Sangye must find out who the true murderer is, while at the same time prevent his daughter from finding out what really happened years ago. 

The script of THE HIGH COMMAND could have easily been the basis of an Agatha Christie novel. A group of English characters, each with something to hide, gathered at an exotic location, where a murder is committed, and everyone is suspect....the only thing missing here is a quirky detective to solve the case and reveal everyone's backstory. It's not hard to guess the murderer (the man actually explains how the deed was committed as an example). The suspense comes from whether Sangye can save his and his daughter's reputation. 

I'm sure Lionel Atwill enjoyed his time back in England while making THE HIGH COMMAND, and no doubt he enjoyed being in the movie itself. He gets first billing, and the role is a bit of a departure for him. His General Sangye isn't the wild-eyed Atwill one sees in the horror thrillers. Atwill is far more deliberate and subtle here. Sangye is a very officious military officer, but he's not a pompous buffoon. Sangye is basically the story's hero. 

A very young James Mason (who sports a mustache here) plays the dashing young officer who is Carson's cousin. Even at this very early stage in his career, Mason has enough presence to stand out from the rest of the cast. Lucie Mannheim (who was in Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS) brings some glamour to her role, and Steven Geray gives a Peter Lorre-like performance as her husband. Playing a bit role as a hotel clerk is the creepy Skelton Knaggs--he and Atwill would cross paths at Universal in the 1940s. 

THE HIGH COMMAND was directed by Thorold Dickinson, who gives the story a few visual flourishes. I doubt that the main cast went to Africa, but there is some stock footage from that country. 

THE HIGH COMMAND gives Lionel Atwill a chance at a starring role in a non-horror film, and it's a good movie. It will be appreciated by those who like classic courtroom/mystery dramas. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

DOCTOR X On Blu-ray From Warner Archive

 






Following last year's magnificent release of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, Warner Archive gives us another restored horror film classic on home video--the 1932 film DOCTOR X. This movie is a gloriously insane example of a Pre-Code thriller, and it is historically important as well. It was the first horror film for genre legends Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. 

A murderer called "The Moon Killer" is stalking New York City. Among the suspects are esteemed scientist Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) and the staff at his medical research facility. The staff (Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe) all act as suspiciously as possible, and Xavier himself seems to have something to hide. The Doctor decides to bring the staff to his remote large estate on Long Island, where, with the use of his laboratory, he will attempt to prove which one is the killer. As expected, things don't go as planned, with a meddling sarcastic newspaper reporter (Lee Tracy) injecting himself into the proceedings, and Xavier's beautiful daughter (Fay Wray) getting caught up in the drama. 

I have to admit that I prefer MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM to DOCTOR X, but the latter has plenty of crazy charms of its own. Despite the fact that this was Lionel Atwill's first horror film (and second sound film), you'd think he had been doing this sort of thing for decades. Atwill's impeccable diction and emotional intensity were perfect for the classic horror film. He elevates the material here, as he did in just about every film he appeared in. 

As she did in last year's MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM Blu-ray, Fay Wray looks breathtaking here, and she gets to let out her very first (but certainly not the last) scream in a horror film. Lee Tracy as the reporter is, in my opinion, far more annoying than Glenda Farrell was in WAX MUSEUM (he's also not as easy on the eyes). 

The biggest highlight of DOCTOR X is the off-the-rails climax, where the Moon Killer is revealed--but not before the fiend disguises himself by slopping on a gooey concoction to transform his features ("SYNTHETIC FLESH!!"). This madcap sequence has a disturbing tinge to it--there's nothing like it in this period of 1930s Hollywood. 

DOCTOR X was filmed in the same two-strip Technicolor process as MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, and it receives a brilliant restoration on this Blu-ray. The movie has a far more greenish tone to it than it did on the DVD release a few years ago, and the picture clarity and sound are vastly improved. 

The major extra on this Blu-ray is the black & white version of DOCTOR X, which has been unavailable for years. For the most part, the camera set-ups, shot compositions, and scenes are basically the same--but it appears that a few alternate takes were used. (It also appears, to my untrained eyes, that the better takes were in the color version.) Being able to see the black & white DOCTOR X is a major monster movie buff highlight (the print is quite sharp at times). I felt that the story didn't come off as lurid as in the color version.

A brand new audio commentary is presented, with author Alan K. Rode, biographer of Michael Curtiz, the director of DOCTOR X. (I wrote a blog post of Rode's Curtiz book earlier this year.) It's an engaging talk, with plenty of facts and anecdotes on Curtiz's life and work. Scott McQueen's excellent commentary for the DVD edition of DOCTOR X is thankfully included here as well. 

A new featurette on the horror films of Michael Curtiz is also here, with clips from the titles and on-camera analysis from Rode and McQueen. Scott McQueen also gives audio insight during a program which compares scenes before and after the restoration of DOCTOR X. There's also an original trailer, which is in black & white. 

Overall, this is an amazing release for an amazing movie. There's been all sorts of rumors lately about the future of the Warner Archive program. Whatever its fate may be, in the last year Warner Archive has presented three incredible Blu-ray releases and restorations of three important films: MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and now DOCTOR X. Everyone who was involved in these releases deserves the utmost congratulations. 



Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Book Review: THE BODY SNATCHER--Cold-Blooded Murder, Robert Louis Stevenson, And The Making Of A Horror Film Classic

 





Of all the movie thrillers Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s, THE BODY SNATCHER, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, is by far my favorite. It contains what I feel is one of Boris Karloff's greatest screen performances, along with a beautifully written script and atmospheric direction from Robert Wise. Scott Allen Nollen has written books on both Karloff and Stevenson, and now, with his wife Yuyun Yuningsih Nollen, he creates a volume that analyses THE BODY SNATCHER from a number of aspects. 

THE BODY SNATCHER--Cold-Blooded Murder, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Making of a Horror Film Classic (published by Bear Manor Media) is a wide-ranging book that starts off with a quick chapter detailing the exploits of Burke and Hare, the legendary murderers who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write his tale. Nollen then gives a summary of Stevenson's life, and follows up with chapters covering the production of THE BODY SNATCHER film, how the movie was sold and received by audiences and critics at the time, and a scene by scene analysis of the entire movie. 

Nollen winds up the book with a chapter on other films based on the Burke and Hare story, while also mentioning other Robert Louis Stevenson adaptations that Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were involved in. 

As one can surmise, there's plenty of info here, but the authors do not get bogged down in detail, and the book is a delight to read. (If anything, I thought some of the chapters were too short.) The book is filled with photos, including a number of stills from THE BODY SNATCHER that I had never seen before. Greg Mank provides a Foreword. 

Obviously, one's enjoyment of this book will depend on how much one appreciates THE BODY SNATCHER film. There's still plenty of things to attract interest here. This is a book that should get the attention of Karloff fans, film buffs, and those who love English Gothic literature and historical legend. 

Bear Manor Media has been publishing a number of great movie-related books in the past few years, and the Nollens' THE BODY SNATCHER joins the list. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

CROSSED SWORDS On Blu-ray From Kino

 




CROSSED SWORDS is a 1977 film adaptation of Mark Twain's story THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. The movie was produced by the Salkind family, who were behind such films as the 1970s Three Musketeer series and SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. 

This is a title I had very little knowledge of, and it doesn't seem to have had made much of an impact when it was originally released. But it is a high-class, well-made, entertaining production, with plenty of first rate talents in front of and behind the camera. It deserves to be better known, and Kino Lorber has just released it on Blu-ray. 

Set in England at the end of King Henry VIII's reign in the middle 1500s, the story concerns Tom Canty (Mark Lester), a poor teenager who has to steal to live. Tom inadvertently blunders into the royal palace, where he encounters Prince Edward (also Lester), the heir to the throne. The two look exactly alike, and the Prince comes upon the idea of the duo switching identities as a jest. The boys wind up separated, and the Prince, in the guise of Tom, is kicked out of the palace, while Tom is forced to pretend that he is Edward. Out in the streets, Edward finds an ally in a soldier of fortune named Miles Hendon (Oliver Reed). Edward tries to convince Miles, and everyone else he comes into contact with, that he is the rightful heir to the throne, while Tom, stuck in the palace, finds to his dismay that the King has died, and he is being prepared for coronation. 

Considering who was behind CROSSED SWORDS, one might assume that the movie is along the lines of THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. But CROSSED SWORDS was directed by Richard Fleischer, not Richard Lester. The more overt humorous elements of Lester's Musketeers films are toned down here--Fleischer provides more of a classic Hollywood sensibility. CROSSED SWORDS does have some lighthearted moments, but it has a realistic tone. The sets and costumes are quite impressive, and there's stunning cinematography by Jack Cardiff, backed by a lively music score by Maurice Jarre.

There's a number of great guest stars here, and even though all their roles are relatively small, they still manage to make an impact. Ernest Borgnine plays Tom's cruel father, and Rex Harrison is the witty Duke of Norfolk. George C. Scott is a bandit chief, while Charlton Heston gives a particularly fine turn as the sickly, gout-ridden Henry VIII. The fine character actor Harry Andrews has a role as well, and Hammer Films fans will be pleased to know that Michael Ripper has a small but important part. One supporting player that merits special mention is Lalla Ward as Prince Edward's older sister Elizabeth, the future queen. 

The real stars of CROSSED SWORDS are Oliver Reed and Mark Lester. Lester is good in the dual role, but at times he seems overwhelmed by all the luminaries surrounding him. Reed gives what I think is one of the best performances of his film career as Miles Hendon. He totally gives his all in the role, throwing himself about with reckless abandon during the fight scenes. But his Miles isn't just a brawling lout--Reed gives him some unexpected depth. Miles has come back to England after a long absence as a mercenary only to find his conniving brother (played very well by David Hemmings) has taken over his inheritance and married his true love (Raquel Welch). Welch looks spectacular as always, but she really doesn't have all that much to do in the picture. 

CROSSED SWORDS looks magnificent on this Kino Region A Blu-ray--it's a colorful, clear transfer that shows off Jack Cardiff's talents. The sound is in mono, and there are times where the music comes off louder than the dialogue. 

Among the extras are a new interview with star Mark Lester. He has a number of stories about the production and his co-stars, and, as expected, he has plenty of anecdotes concerning Oliver Reed. An audio commentary prepared for this Blu-ray features Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. The participants are enthusiastic, but they spend a lot of time discussing things other than the movie at hand. 

Kino has also seen fit to include what is described as the "international" version of CROSSED SWORDS, which is a few minutes longer, on this disc. Unfortunately this version is not in HD, and the visual quality is nowhere near as good as the main version. There's not a lot of difference in this international version, other than a few scenes being longer and a bit more plot detail. 

I was pleasantly surprised at how effective CROSSED SWORDS is, considering that it seems to not have much of a reputation. It's a classic historical adventure that can be watched by the entire family, without CGI excess and outlandish editing techniques. It's a great example of good old-fashioned expert storytelling, enlivened by a distinguished cast. I'm glad that Kino has given an unheralded gem like CROSSED SWORDS a major home video release. 



Monday, April 12, 2021

GODZILLA VS. KONG

 


I know what you are thinking--"Dan, there's no way you're going to like this movie. Why even write a blog post on it??" Well, it's what I do. 

The latest installment of the "Monsterverse"--or the "Monarchverse", or whatever you want to call it--pits Godzilla vs. King Kong. But there's a third party that the duo winds up dealing with. Some cult movie geeks might rejoice over this guest star, but that creature's realization here is, in my opinion, just as lacking as that of the main two monsters. 

The other films in this "Monsterverse"--the 2014 GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND, and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, didn't impress me very much. What you got in those films--annoying human characters, lame attempts at humor, plenty of CGI battle spectacle--is what you get in GODZILLA VS. KONG. 

The mysterious and ominous Monarch Corporation has trapped King Kong on Skull Island for study. But another ominous corporation called Apex believes that the big ape can lead them to "Hollow Earth", deep under the ground, where all the giant monsters supposedly come from. (The Toho Studios idea that giant monsters were let loose by radiation and the folly of man does not apply here.) Godzilla and Kong somehow sense each other, and commence to brawling. Kong gets put down pretty hard in the first round, but he's able to lead the human characters to Hollow Earth, while Godzilla heads for Hong Kong to destroy Apex's secret weapon. A bunch of CGI destruction follows. 

This is a basically a summer popcorn movie, so one shouldn't take it too seriously. It would be nice, though, if some of the fun and inventiveness of the classic Japanese kaiju movies had been included here. Watching this film I was reminded of several other loud CGI fests, such as PACIFIC RIM, the JURASSIC PARK series, the TRANSFORMERS series, and...there's even a part of Hollow Earth that is reminiscent of LORD OF THE RINGS. 

King Kong is definitely the star of this film, and he looks far better than the 21st Century American Godzilla, who is far too ugly and too lacking in personality for my taste. As for the plot, there's no point in trying to analyze it, or you'll find yourself asking questions such as....why does King Kong wield a Kong-sized radioactive ax? And why does a massive and powerful corporation such as Apex have such weak security that it can be breached by a teenager and her two geeky friends??

GODZILLA VS. KONG does have a couple visual reminders to the 1962 KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Other than that....I'd much rather be watching that 1962 film. 


Saturday, April 3, 2021

WHAT A CARVE UP! (AKA NO PLACE LIKE HOMICIDE!)

 





The 1961 film WHAT A CARVE UP! (released in America as NO PLACE LIKE HOMICIDE!) belongs in a small mini-genre of British thriller spoofs made in the early 1960s. The other titles in this group are the 1962 THE OLD DARK HOUSE (made by Hammer, directed by William Castle) and THE HORROR OF IT ALL (directed by Terence Fisher). All three movies involve comedic leads dealing with a weird family living in a spooky remote old manor house. (CARRY ON SCREAMING could be also included in this group, but the plot of that film is very different.)

CARRY ON veterans Sid James and Kenneth Connor star as two friends who travel to a remote estate for the reading of Connor's late uncle's will. As expected, Connor's relatives are strange or suspicious-acting, and people start turning up dead. 

This movie does have an impressive cast. Donald Pleasence is the family solicitor, and playing family members are Dennis Price and Hammer veterans George Woodbridge and Michael Gwynn. Shirley Eaton provides the eye candy as the late uncle's nurse, and Michael Gough gets the best role as the butler. Gough is made up to look like Lurch from the Addams Family, and he shambles along with a limp and a zombie-like expression. Adam Faith, who was a English pop star at the time, shows up at the end for a cameo. 

One expects some entertainment just from the cast alone, but the script doesn't provide any. The story is made up of the same old dark house cliches most film buffs have seen numerous times. There's sliding panels, bodies appearing (and disappearing) unexpectedly, and characters acting weird just for the sake of it. Kenneth Connor is a cowardly klutz, while Sid James is a bossy smart-aleck. In this film the duo come off like an English Abbott & Costello (although nowhere near as funny or interesting). 

Despite all the various CARRY ON connections here, there's very little bawdy humor (the viewer is, however, treated to the sight of Shirley Eaton in her underwear). The "funny" business that is in this movie could easily be found in any episode of the average American TV sitcom made at the time. 

WHAT A CARVE UP! was produced by Robert Baker & Monty Berman, and this is one of their decidedly lesser efforts. The director of the film was Pat Jackson, who went on to helm a few episodes of the magnificent TV show THE PRISONER. Here Jackson seems ill at ease with comedy--the gags lack rhythm and pace. (The Three Stooges could have gone through all the situations in this movie in fifteen minutes flat.) 

English Gothic fans will want to see WHAT A CARVE UP! just for the cast alone, but the limp material doesn't measure up to the talents involved. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE

 





PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954) is Warner Bros.' 3-D follow up to their hit HOUSE OF WAX. The film is based on Poe's famous tale "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", but, as expected, several liberties are taken with the source material. 

In 1890s Paris, a mysterious fiend is brutally murdering a number of young attractive women. A few clues lead the Inspector on the case (Claude Dauphin) to charge Professor Paul Dupin (Steve Forrest) with the crimes. Dupin, however, is being set up by an associate, Dr. Marais (Karl Malden). Marais is a zoologist and a psychologist, and he has trained a gorilla to kill on his command. The victims had rejected Marais in some way, and the madman has his eyes on Dupin's love (Patricia Medina). The gorilla winds up taking the woman up on the rooftops of Paris, while the police try to track them and Marais down. 

I watched this movie thru my TCM cable app, and, needless to say, it was not in 3-D. Would I have enjoyed it better if it had been? I doubt it, since I'm not much of a 3-D fan. For me, the main interest here was the fact that it was one of the very few Gothic horror tales made by a major American studio in the early 1950s, and in color, no less. 

For a Hollywood movie made in this period, PHANTOM is quite brutal--we even get to see some blood streaks on the bodies of the victims, and the movie leaves no doubt that they have been horribly attacked. Jonathan Rigby has pointed out in his book that this film is a precursor to the much more violent horror thrillers of the 60s and 70s, where gorgeous women were killed in various spectacular and bloody ways. The incident in Poe's story of a woman's corpse being stuffed up a chimney is even used here. (Mario Bava would have had a field day with PHANTOM'S scenario.)

The problem is the story bogs down very quickly with several "police official investigating the murders" scenes that just seem to kill time. There's an attempt to inject some atmosphere with such elements as can-can girls, a knife throwing act, acrobats, and Apache dancers, but you're still never convinced that this is supposed to be Paris. The main reason is that, other than Claude Dauphin, all the other actors come off as non-French as possible. (A very young Merv Griffin, of all people, has a small role here as a Parisian university student.) 

Karl Malden gives a very hammy and nervy performance as Dr. Marais. Malden was a fine character actor, but he's not at all suited to play a Bela Lugosi-John Carradine type of role. Marais has plenty of hangups with the opposite sex, due to his relationship with his late wife. The doctor keeps a mini-shrine to his wife in his house, complete with a large portrait of the woman (which looks just like Patricia Medina). This plot point of a mentally disturbed man obsessed with a dead wife would be used in most of the later Poe adaptations made by American-International Pictures. 

Director Roy Del Ruth (a long-time Warners veteran) uses plenty of 3-D gimmicks, the main one being females in danger screaming at the camera in extreme close-up. Charles Gemora, who played the ape in Universal's 1932 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, does the honors again here. The gorilla suit this time is quite impressive--it's much better looking than the ones used in many 1930s-40s poverty row flicks. The climax of the gorilla making off with Patricia Medina isn't as exciting as it should be, mainly due to the fact that the creature appears to be lugging around a mannequin. 

PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE doesn't have much of a reputation now (Jonathan Rigby is one of the few genre experts who has written about it). It's much darker than HOUSE OF WAX, and it doesn't have a real horror star like Vincent Price. I much prefer the 1932 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and I would even say that AIP's 1971 MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is better. 




Saturday, March 27, 2021

ZACH SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE

 


Do we really need a four-hour alternate version of a two-hour comic book movie, that, in my original estimation, was just okay? Well, we have one with ZACH SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE. Thanks to my dear brother Robert, I was able to view this elephantine mass of clickbait. 

I'm not going to go into the background of how and why this film came about--there's plenty of articles on the internet where you can get that info. This Snyder version greatly expands on the theatrical JUSTICE LEAGUE, not necessarily better. 

The Snyder version clears up a lot of loose plot points--for example, it provides a legitimate reason for the heroes to resurrect Superman. But the extra footage also accentuates the original movie's flaws. There's still too many characters, too many subplots...there's so much going on that it's hard to have any emotional connection with anything, or anyone. 

How you feel about this version will really depend on how you feel about Zach Snyder's bombastic, music video-on-steroids directing style. Snyder constantly strains for the "big moment"--but he attempts so many of them here, that by the time the real big moments are supposed to happen, they don't have the expected impact. A little bit of Snyder goes a long way, and this is a long movie. (Snyder also loves slow motion the way Bugs Bunny loves carrots.)

The characterizations in this version haven't been improved, except for Ray Fisher's Cyborg, who winds up being the lead hero. The main villain, Steppenwolf, has been redesigned, but he still comes off as a minor league Thanos, and Darksied's cameo is rather underwhelming. Ezra Miller's Flash gets more chances at comic relief, but it also makes the character more silly. 

This version has a prologue, six parts, and a epilogue, but I don't think that helped the story along any. The epilogue sets up a bizarre alternate storyline that some fanboys want Snyder to go out and make (I say no). It is also is presented in a 4:3 standard aspect ratio, which is quite unusual in this day and age. I'm sure there's plenty of young folks who have never spent four hours in their lives watching something in a non-widescreen format. (It also doesn't do much for the visuals.) 

Is there anything I liked about this Snyder cut?? Well....Superman did have a sharp-looking alternate uniform. 

ZACH SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is certainly not the salvation of the DC cinematic universe (personally, I don't think there even is a DCCU). Like most alternate cuts or versions of films, it has a certain interest, but I don't think it's a great improvement over the theatrical JUSTICE LEAGUE. I also believe it's not worth spending money just to watch it on HBOMax. The truly great DC Comics movie, featuring the company's classic characters, has yet to be made.