Saturday, July 31, 2021



HEAT LIGHTNING, from 1934, is another of those great early 30s Warner Bros. pictures that, despite its short running time, has far more entertainment value than most two hour-plus blockbusters made today. 

Aline MacMahon plays Olga, a no-nonsense woman who runs a gas station/lunch counter/auto camp somewhere in the American Southwest with her younger sister Myra (Ann Dvorak). Olga, who has been hurt and disappointed in the past, accepts this lonely, stifling existence, but Myra does not. Olga wants to protect her sister from bad men--and in one of those old movie coincidences, the bad man who hurt Olga shows up at the gas station. His name is George (Preston Foster) and he's on the run from a bank robbery, along with his jittery partner (Lyle Talbot). Olga doesn't know what George has done, but she doesn't trust him--while at the same time she starts to realize she still has feelings for him. The climax reveals that Olga was right about men all along. 

There's much more to HEAT LIGHTNING than the simple plot. There's the gas station itself, an actual outdoor location, which contributes to the remote, arid atmosphere. (You can almost feel the heat the characters are dealing with in the story while watching it.) Despite Olga's business being so out-of-the-way, a number of quirky folks happen to show up, including a middle-aged couple with car trouble (Jane Darwell and Edgar Kennedy), and two divorcees traveling from Reno with a chauffeur (Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly, and Frank McHugh). Farrell and Donnelly are given most of the film's snappy dialogue and comedic moments. 

Aline MacMahon was an exemplary supporting player in several Warner Bros. features of the 1930s, but here she gets to shine in the lead role. It's not a glamorous part (Olga spends most of the film wearing overalls, a bandanna around her hair, and no makeup) but MacMahon is totally believable in it. Olga might seem harsh and cynical at times, but she really does care about her sister, and she's more than able to take care of herself, as George finds out at the end of the story. MacMahon in HEAT LIGHTNING provides more evidence to my theory that American film actresses had better roles to play in the 1930s than they do now. 

Ann Dvorak doesn't get a lot of screen time as kid sister Myra, but she's still able to get the viewer's attention with her off-kilter personality. Preston Foster surprised me as George--from what I've seen of the actor I didn't think he could play a tough, cocky gangster type, but he did it quite well. As in most Warners films of this period, the supporting cast almost steals the show, especially Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly as the high-living divorced dames. (The studio should have made a film on the further adventures of the duo's characters.) 

HEAT LIGHTNING was directed by the ubiquitous Mervyn LeRoy, and he and cinematographer Sid Hickox make effective use of the outdoor gas station location. There's one shot in particular that caught my attention--Aline MacMahon is in a pit, working underneath a car, while arguing with Ann Dvorak. As Dvorak angrily strides back to the station, we see her walking away from MacMahon's almost ground-level perspective. It may not seem like much in description, but considering how quick the shooting schedule probably was, it shows that LeRoy was trying to give this film something extra. 

I've seen several Warner Bros. Pre-code films, and they have now become one of my favorite categories of cinema. They may only be around an hour long, but they are filled with plenty of story lines and enjoyable performers. These movies had a rhythm and a pace to them, and for the most part they are highly entertaining. HEAT LIGHTNING is a prime example. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021



Nearly every film director with a major association with the cinema of the fantastic has been the subject of a major biography, including James Whale, Tod Browning, and Ishiro Honda. Now Terence Fisher is finally the recipient of an extensive look at his life with Tony Dalton's TERENCE FISHER--MASTER OF GOTHIC CINEMA, published by FAB Press. 

Fisher will always be best known for the many Gothic horror films he directed for Hammer Films--a group of pictures that redefined the genre. A major part of this book does deal with Fisher's Hammer years, but Tony Dalton covers the man's entire life, from his childhood, his early years in the British Merchant Navy, and his beginnings in the English film industry as a clapper boy. 

Fisher later moved into the editing department, and eventually became a director, helming a number of low-budget features from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. In 1956 Hammer Films chose Fisher to direct THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a picture that changed horror films--and Fisher's career. 

The author is not just a Hammer fan, he is someone who was a friend of Terence Fisher and his family. For this book Dalton has done extensive research on Fisher's personal life before he got into the film industry. Dalton also spends plenty of pages on Fisher's editing work, and the films he directed before THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In most books and articles on Fisher, his non-Gothic films are barely acknowledged, or ignored, but Dalton doesn't make that mistake. The author also reminds the reader that before the color Hammer Gothics, Fisher worked with several known actors, such as Jean Simmons, Dirk Bogarde, Diana Dors, Noel Coward, Paul Henreid, Pat O'Brien, and Paulette Goddard. 

Terence Fisher's television work is also given a chapter here (another aspect of the man's career that gets ignored by film geeks). It is in this chapter that Dalton reveals that Fisher worked on a Walt Disney production!

When Dalton gets to the time of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, he breaks off the chronological narrative and examines the rest of Fisher's films in various sub-groups. I understand the author's intent in doing this, but I wish he had stuck to a consecutive timeline, especially since this is the first major biography of the director.  

Nevertheless, this is the best book on the life and work of Terence Fisher by far. What Dalton is most successful at is defining what sort of person Terence Fisher was, not just on a movie set but at home as well. Fisher was reserved, modest, and non-confrontational, and he loved nothing more than working on a Hammer film surrounded by artists he was familiar with (well, maybe nothing except spending time in a pub). The volume that I am reviewing is the limited-edition hardcover version of the book, which can only be ordered direct from FAB Press. (A softcover version is planned for later this year--I do not know if that will differ greatly from the hardcover version.)

This is a 500-page, well-designed book, with high-quality pages, and dozens of photographs, including several rare ones of Terence Fisher, and a few very familiar to Hammer fans. The book has three different color sections, and a filmography that the author states is the most complete of Terence Fisher's cinema work. 

There have been plenty of things written about Terence Fisher over the years. Most of the writing either gives Fisher too much credit or not enough. Tony Dalton strikes the right balance in this superb biography, while presenting Fisher as a filmmaker, not just a horror movie director. Even long-time hardcore Hammer enthusiasts will find plenty of things to learn and appreciate from TERENCE FISHER--MASTER OF GOTHIC CINEMA. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021



BLACK WIDOW is the first movie I've seen in a theater this year. It's not because I've been afraid to go, or wary of the experience. If the entertainment conglomerates would put out things that I actually want to see, I'd go all the time. But the pickings at the local multiplexes have been rather slim. 

As for BLACK WIDOW, I think it's one of the better Marvel films. Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff has always been one of the more intriguing characters in the MCU, due to the fact that she's a trained assassin, and not a standard good guy. Natasha's standalone story is fittingly harder-edged than the usual Marvel fare, with a darker tone (but not too dark). Don't worry, there's plenty of CGI shennanigans, including a number of violent fights. (While watching this film, I had to wonder how ScarJo was able to maintain such a flawless complexion & figure despite being put through the equivalent of about 30 MMA matches.) 

The real stars of BLACK WIDOW are the members of Natasha's "family", as played by Florence Pugh, David Harbour, and Rachel Weisz. Their interactions give the story some heart & soul. Most comic book movies have problems presenting decent villains, but Ray Winstone is a viable threat here. 

Of course, BLACK WIDOW was supposed to come out a long time ago....but at least it did get released in theaters, and at least I got to see a summer movie during the summer. Like most Marvel movies, it's a bit overlong, and it does feel like a video game at times, but it's still entertaining. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021



I'm currently reading TERENCE FISHER--MASTER OF GOTHIC CINEMA, written by Tony Dalton. It appears to be the volume on the life and works of English film director Fisher, best known for his several Hammer horror films. 

One of the best features of the book so far is that it gives a comprehensive look at the films Fisher directed before he started working on the Hammer horrors. This has given me the impetus to seek out some of these titles. 

Last night I ventured on YouTube and viewed PORTRAIT FROM LIFE, a 1948 production from Gainsborough Pictures, and the fourth film Fisher directed. It's an understated but effective drama dealing with the problems of European refugees after the end of WWII. (The movie was also known as LOST DAUGHTER in America.)

A Major Lawrence (Guy Rolfe) is on leave in London from his post in occupied postwar Germany. The bored Major wanders into an art gallery, where he becomes mesmerized by a portrait of a beautiful young girl. The name of the picture identifies the girl as "Hildegarde", but an elderly Austrian professor (Arnold Marle) claims that the girl is actually his long-lost daughter Lydia. The Major decides to help the Professor find out who the girl really is. The duo track down the artist (Robert Beatty), but the man is dying of alcoholism. Before the artist expires, he reveals enough clues to send the Major off searching several displaced persons camps in Germany. The Major finds the girl in the portrait (Mai Zetterling) but she claims to be the daughter of a shifty-looking fellow also at the camp (Herbert Lom). Eventually the Major unlocks the girl's past and finds out her real identity. 

PORTRAIT FROM LIFE has a number of on and off camera talents that Terence Fisher would work with later on at Hammer Films, such as actors Guy Rolfe, Herbert Lom, Arnold Marle and Sam Kydd, cinematographer Jack Asher, camera operator Len Harris, and music composer Benjamin Frankel. It's tempting to take examples from this movie and match them up with scenes from Fisher's later Hammer work, but PORTRAIT FROM LIFE should be appreciated on its own merits. It's not a spectacular film by any means, but the mystery behind the girl's identity draws the viewer in, and the story does get a bit suspenseful towards the climax. 

PORTRAIT FROM LIFE has a few film noir aspects to it--the main character narrates parts of the story, there's a flashback that gives out important plot details, and amnesia and false identities are involved. There's also plenty of moody black & white photography from Jack Asher, and Fisher uses many dramatic close-ups. But this film doesn't have the hard-boiled aspect of American noirs. Major Lawrence isn't a desperate, distraught anti-hero--he's a conscientious, responsible military officer. There's a hint that Lawrence is attracted to Hildegarde/Lydia, but he truly is concerned about her welfare. The character who fits the noir bill much better is that of the drunken artist played by Robert Beatty. 

Mai Zetterling is so naive and innocent as the girl in the portrait that she seems like a character in a fairy tale, which must have pleased a sentimentalist like Terence Fisher. Herbert Lom is memorable as always as the duplicitous villain, but he doesn't overplay the role. The film is also filled with small parts in which the performers playing them are allowed to have moments, a trait that one sees in all of Fisher's directorial efforts. 

If you are looking for key moments that anticipate Fisher's later Hammer Gothics, there is a gripping sequence where Herbert Lom's character stalks a camp resident who has been informing on him. This sequence even has some swirling leaves in it--the first thing I think about when it comes to Terence Fisher's cinematic style. 

PORTRAIT FROM LIFE is a very good film, and it's proof that Terence Fisher could tell interesting screen stories that were not Gothic horrors (especially when he had an above-average script to work with). 

Monday, July 12, 2021



Frank Dello Stritto's THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY is in the same vein as his earlier works, A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS and CARL DENHAM'S GIANT MONSTERS. All three deal with the lives and adventures of famous classic horror film characters. In the earlier two volumes Frank revealed the "actual" exploits of Larry Talbot from THE WOLF MAN and Carl Denham from KING KONG. 

Here, the author looks at the most familiar of the classic characters deemed "The Mummy"--specifically, Kharis, who appeared in four films made by Universal in the early 1940s. 

The story of THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY is told by an unnamed narrator, who, as a boy, gazed upon the dormant mummy of Kharis during a school trip to the Scripps Museum in New York. Somehow, the minds of the boy and Kharis became one, and as the young man grew older, his link with Kharis grew stronger. This opened up a whole new world to the narrator--a world of devious ancient cults, mysterious High Priests, and dangerous immortal women. 

Frank weaves almost all the major movies featuring a mummy into his tale--including the ones made by Hammer. Any old monster movie buff worth their tana leaves knows of the many discrepancies featured in the plots of the Universal Kharis series...but as he did with his "biographies" of Larry Talbot and Carl Denham, the author connects all the wayward dots in a way that is inventive and highly creative. 

Real-life history--and real-life Egyptology--are involved in this story as well. The narrator meets and deals with a number of movie characters that will be familiar to film buffs, and some that are a bit obscure. I really don't want to go into major details of the plot, because one of the great enjoyments of reading Frank's books is the surprises one gets when a certain fictional character or movie is referenced. I will say that there is a explanation given for why Kharis and his beloved Ananka went from a swamp in Massachusetts to one in the deep South--and not only is it believable, it fits into Universal horror history. (I must also say that Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing fans in particular will enjoy this book.) 

Throughout this book, several stills from movies and TV shows are used to augment the tale. As in the other volumes of the "Historical Fiction Monster Trilogy" (as it is referred to on the back cover), the book is handsomely designed, and published by Cult Movie Press. 

I'm an unabashed fan of Frank's "Monster Trilogy"--I just wish I could come up with a more catchy name for it. (The Strittoverse?) Mixing pop culture, classic monster movies, and actual history, and coming up with "biographies" of famous genre characters is a challenging concept, but one that has been brilliantly accomplished by Frank Dello Stritto. The "Strittoverse" is much more entertaining and intriguing than many of the films it references. Once you read THE PASSION OF THE MUMMY, you'll want to watch the Kharis movies all over again, as I am doing...and not only will you appreciate them more, you'll see them in a new light. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021



Has any other film director written a novel based on one of his movies? Someone might have done it before...(one must realize that even though George Lucas is credited as the author of the novelization of STAR WARS, the book was actually written by Alan Dean Foster). 

When I wrote a blog post on ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, the movie, I mentioned that Quentin Tarantino probably would have wanted to spend hours more in showing the two main characters of the story, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, meandering around Los Angeles. In a way, Tarantino does that with this novel. 

The book isn't so much a straight written adaptation of the film as it is a collection of interior monologues by the main characters. There's no slam-bang action scenes, and a number of major sequences in the film are barely referenced at all. The novel is something of an alternate version of the movie, showing it from different angles and perspectives. 

The book gives us greater insight into Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. It is revealed that Booth is a WWII hero (I assumed that he had fought in either Korea or maybe Vietnam). The reader finds out what really happened between Booth and his wife (the incident as related here is quite disturbing). Rick Dalton is shown to be bipolar, and not exactly the sharpest tool in the drawer. The relationship between Dalton and his young female costar on the pilot of LANCER is expanded upon, and much more is also made of Dalton's drinking habits in this novel. 

Tarantino's quirky storytelling style is in full evidence here. Much of the book is written in the present tense, and there are several flashbacks, and even flash-forwards (we find out a little bit of what Rick Dalton was doing in the 1970s). Tarantino wanders off every so often to cover a number of things, such as inside info on how American TV shows of the 1960s were made, and the working lives of French pimps. A couple of chapters relate the plot of the episode of LANCER that Rick is working on as if it is a hard-boiled Western pulp story. As expected, the language is rather salty, and politically incorrect. 

I think ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is one of Tarantino's best films, so I naturally enjoyed this unique take on it. I think you have to be a fan of Tarantino's, or at least the film in  particular, to enjoy this novel. I don't see any reason why someone would read this book if they haven't seen the film, or if they disliked it. The film and the book complement each other. 

One thing I love about this book is how it's designed to look like a paperback novel from 1969. It's also very affordable--I got it from Amazon for $8. You just know if some "trending" director like Rian Johnson wrote a book, it would be released in hardcover and the list price would be $35. 

I realize that Quentin Tarantino's work is not for all tastes, but this novel is intriguing, funny, surprising, and filled with all sorts of movie geek references. Tarantino could have easily just written a knock-off of his film, but he went out of his way to create something that stands on its own, and is entertaining in its own way. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021



EAGLE IN A CAGE, released in 1972, is another obscure film I stumbled upon on the Tubi streaming channel. It dramatizes the beginning of Napoleon Bonaparte's exile on the small island of St. Helena in 1815. 

The movie has a strong cast of acclaimed actors (Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Billie Whitelaw), but surprisingly, instead of a mainstream star, British character player Kenneth Haigh portrays Napoleon. Haigh is good in the role, but his Napoleon is more low-key than one would expect, and he also uses his normal English accent instead of a French one. Because everyone else in the cast also has an English accent, Haigh's Napoleon doesn't seem as much of an outsider as he should be. 

Among the retinue that Napoleon is allowed to bring to the island is a Count (Frerdy Mayne), his wife (Billie Whitelaw), and a general (Moses Gunn). The former Emperor plots to escape almost as soon as he arrives, as he matches wits with St. Helena's eccentric military governor (Ralph Richardson) and a Royal Navy physician (Michael Williams). 

A young girl living on the island (Georgina Hale) becomes infatuated with Napoleon, while he carries on with the Count's wife, who happens to be one of Bonaparte's former mistresses. Napoleon engages in debates with the governor and doctor, does try an escape attempt (which fails), and meets with a British official (John Gielgud) who offers him a chance to go back to France. But Bonaparte's ill health sours the deal. 

EAGLE IN A CAGE is the type of film that would now be called "Oscar Bait". It is a historically-based film featuring a legendary figure, starring distinguished performers. It's also very in real life, Napoleon doesn't have all that much to do on his island prison. If Haigh's Napoleon had been more boisterous, or over-the-top, like Rod Steiger in WATERLOO, the story might have had more spice to it. 

Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in particular are quite hammy here, but at least they inject some life into the proceedings. The dalliances Napoleon has with the characters played by Billie Whitelaw and Georgina Hale might have made more sense if Haigh had been more charismatic. 

According to IMDB, the film was shot in Yugoslavia--I do have to say it did look like the story does takes place on a barren and remote island. The costumes look fine, and director Fielder Cook, a veteran of American television, does what he can to open up the action. 

History buffs might want to view EAGLE IN A CAGE, but it's nowhere near as exciting as the poster above makes it out to be. A stronger personality in the lead role would have helped. (A word of warning to those who might want to check this out on Tubi--the transfer they are using is rather tatty-looking.) 

Friday, July 2, 2021



HAMMERHEAD (1968) is another of the many James Bond-like spy/adventure films made in the Sixties. This one stars Vince Edwards as Charles Hood, an American who works as a Special Branch operative for England. 

Hood is tasked to infiltrate the organization of a shady character named Hammerhead (Peter Vaughan). The villain's scheme is to kidnap a government figure before an important meeting in Portugal, and replace the official with an impostor. Hood tries to stop the plot, with the unwanted help of a kooky blonde (Judy Geeson). 

The producer of HAMMERHEAD was Irving Allen, and one of the co-writers was a Herbert Baker. Both men were behind the Matt Helm movie series, and they were hoping to start up a Charles Hood series as well. HAMMERHEAD is nowhere near as outlandish (or silly) as the Matt Helm films, but it's not a hard-edged spy thriller either. The movie (directed by David Miller) has a tendency to meander along, and other than a few fistfights, there's not very much action. 

Vince Edwards is okay as Charles Hood, but there's nothing about the role that particularly stands out--Hood doesn't seem to have any special skills (at least he doesn't show any), and he winds up being just another handsome guy in a suit. The villain Hammerhead isn't all that memorable either, other than his quirk of collecting historical examples of pornography. Judy Geeson is by far the best thing in the film. Her youth and vitality brighten the story considerably. 

Like most movies made across the Atlantic in the Sixties, HAMMERHEAD has a lot of British acting talent in the supporting cast, with Diana Dors, Michael Bates, Patrick Cargill, Tracy Reed, Douglas Wilmer, and Kathleen Byron. David (Darth Vader) Prowse plays Hammerhead's main henchman, while Hammer starlet Veronica Carlson has a very, very small role (at least she gets a couple lines of dialogue, and she isn't dubbed). Ironically, Veronica and Prowse would also have tiny roles in another Bond knock-off called CROSSPLOT. Beverly Adams, who had a recurring role in the Matt Helm movies, plays Hammerhead's sultry mistress here. 

HAMMERHEAD tries to act cooler than it really is, with a few psychedelic elements thrown in that seemed forced, and a music score by David Whitaker that veers between imitating John Barry and Burt Bacharach. With so many spy movies and TV shows made during this period, it's no wonder that this one didn't make that much of a stir, or that there were no more adventures with Charles Hood. The most exciting thing in this movie is playing "Spot the cult actor" game during it.