Sunday, October 29, 2023

My Ten Favorite Hammer Movies (Part Two)



The most famous Hammer film of them all. What can I say about this that hasn't already been said?? Well, can we give some love to Barbara Archer, who plays Inga the barmaid? After all, she's the one who gave Jonathan Harker's diary to Van Helsing. 

THE MUMMY (1959)

Nearly all of the major contributors to Hammer Horror--in front of and behind the camera--are here, and Christopher Lee in my opinion is the greatest movie mummy ever. 


I didn't see the original British TV miniseries that this is based on until last year, but I still think the Hammer version is superior. Nigel Kneale adapts his own original script into a tighter and much more focused sci-fi thriller that gives the viewer plenty to think about. 


Why do I admire this film so much? The accompanying photo provides all the explanations needed. 


The true beginning of Hammer Horror, this adaptation of Nigel Kneale's first Quatermass tale reduces it to a taut and suspenseful 82 minutes. Kneale didn't like Brian Donlevy's no-nonsense, get out of my way version of the title character, but I do. Richard Wordsworth (as the eventual creature) gives one of the creepiest performances in any science fiction/horror movie. 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

My Ten Favorite Hammer Movies (Part One)


Earlier this year, a Facebook friend and Twitter follower of mine, Jeff Duncanson, suggested that I do a list of my ten favorite Hammer movies. This was an idea that I had been mulling over from time to time, but I just never got around to doing it. One reason why is that I thought such a list would be made up of nothing more than the usual suspects....what more could I bring to it? 

There's also the chore of trying to limit the list to ten titles, and what titles to choose. Whenever I make up one of these type lists, I always look back on it weeks later and think "Why didn't I do it this way??" And invariably, whenever I post a top ten list, the reaction I do get (if any) is "Why didn't you put so-and-so on the list??" 

Anyway, here's the list, which I originally posted on my personal Facebook page earlier this month. The list will be broken up in two parts, and I'm presenting it as a Halloween special. After each title I'll give a brief reason why it made the list. The grouping of titles isn't in any particular order, except for the very first one, which is my favorite Hammer movie of all time. 


Not only is it my favorite all-time Hammer film, it's my all-time favorite performance by my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing. I'm well aware of the fact that this movie does not feature Dracula, or Christopher Lee, but for me BRIDES is Hammer at its ultimate peak when it comes to English Gothic cinema. 


An outstanding adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's novel, with Christopher Lee battling Satanic forces in one of his best roles. Excellent work by director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Richard Matheson. 


This movie does not feature most of the regular Hammer Horror cast & crew, but it's an effective and atmospheric Gothic tale that is better than most of the company's Dracula entries. 


I picked this more out of nostalgic familiarity more than anything else. When I was a teenager in the 1980s and just starting to become a Hammer fan, this movie was on television constantly, especially the Chicago broadcast stations. 


Probably Hammer's darkest and most truly horrific tale. Peter Cushing is at his most determined and cunning here, and in my very biased opinion, Veronica Carlson gives one of the best performances of any Hammer leading lady. I have to say that after getting to know Veronica personally, it's not easy to watch what she has to go through in this film. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023



In the mid-1960s, American actor Nick Adams went to Japan and appeared in three films for Toho Studios. Two of those films, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER are well-known among movie geeks. The third, THE KILLING BOTTLE, is basically forgotten due to the fact that it has never been available to North American audiences. 

This is a movie I've wanted to watch for years, due to the fact that it also stars the lovely Kumi Mizuno, who also appeared in the other two Nick Adams Toho films. I recently discovered THE KILLING BOTTLE on the Internet Archive, and the widescreen print is of Blu-ray quality, and it has a Japanese voice track with English subtitles. 

THE KILLING BOTTLE is an entry in a series of films made by Toho detailing the adventures of members of the International Secret Police, a spy organization. One of the International Secret Police films, KEY OF KEYS, is known for being redubbed by Woody Allen into the comedy WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY? These films are lighthearted adventures rather than hard-edged thrillers--from my viewing of THE KILLING BOTTLE, I'd compare them to the Roger Moore 007 movies of the Seventies. 

The title THE KILLING BOTTLE refers to a new method of assassination, a large squeeze bottle that emits a foamy substance that expands thousands of times its size, and crushes and suffocates anyone it envelops. This substance has been invented by an organization called ZZZ, and their latest plot is to kill the Prime Minister of a Asian country called Buddhabal. Agents Kitami (Tatsuya Mihashi) and John Carter (Nick Adams) are assigned to stop the scheme, and they are helped--and hindered--by a mysterious beautiful young woman (Kumi Mizuno). 

THE KILLING BOTTLE is a colorful action-adventure which doesn't take itself too seriously. Kitami and John Carter have a friendly rivalry with each other, and the two men report to an "M"-like boss who of course becomes exasperated by them. There's a few nifty gadgets, but this movie isn't as technologically obsessed as the Bond films are. The action isn't too overly violent, and the overall tone isn't nearly as outlandish as the many Euro spy pictures made during this period. The climax takes place in a Disneyland-type amusement park.

If you are a Toho Kaiju movie fan, you'll see plenty of familiar faces here, such as Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, and Yoshio Tsuchiya. The producer of THE KILLING BOTTLE was Godzilla series creator Tomoyuki Tanaka, and the screenwriter was science-fiction/kaiju veteran Shinichi Sekizawa. 

Tatsuya Mihashi is a decent enough leading man, although he's no Sean Connery. Nick Adams gives his agent a bit of an attitude by constantly wearing weird sunglasses and having a toothpick in his mouth. What impressed me about Nick Adams and his Japanese sojourn is that he gave his all in the movies he appeared in for Toho, and he was never dismissive of the company or what he was doing. Adams appears to be enjoying himself in THE KILLING BOTTLE, and he even gets to engage in some martial arts. 

As for Kumi Mizuno, she gets to show off her range by being a cute comedic pest for most of the story, but, as expected, her character turns out to be much more. Surprisingly, Mizuno doesn't wind up having a romance with either of the leading men in the story (that was something Nick Adams reportedly wanted to have with her in real life.) A sultry actress billed as Anne Mari plays a femme fatale working for ZZZ, and she gets to perform a couple of musical numbers as a nightclub entertainer. 

I enjoyed THE KILLING BOTTLE, but as a Toho Kaiju fan, I'm part of the audience that would most appreciate it today. I'd love to see this movie get an official North American home video release, but I doubt that's ever going to happen--there's no giant monsters here, and the film is almost subdued when compared to the many other spy spoofs that came out during the same time. The best chance for those interested in seeing it would be to go on the Internet Archive before it gets pulled due to a rights issue. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

THE MYSTIC On Blu-ray From Criterion


Just in time for Halloween Criterion has released a two-disc Blu-ray set called TOD BROWNING'S SIDESHOW SHOCKERS, containing three films directed by the man called the Edgar Allan Poe of the screen. 

The set contains two of Browning's most famous features: FREAKS, the ultimate cult movie making its Blu-ray debut, and the disturbing THE UNKNOWN. Today I'll be discussing the third title in the set, a 1925 silent called THE MYSTIC. 

THE MYSTIC was the first movie Tod Browning directed after his smash success THE UNHOLY THREE. Both of those films have a number of things in common. THE MYSTIC is also reminiscent of other Browning tales such as THE WHITE TIGER and THE SHOW. 

As with most of Browning's silent films, the plot of THE MYSTIC is quite simple. An American con man named Michael Nash (Conway Tearle) encounters a troupe of Hungarian circus performers while in Europe. Nash is convinced that their act will be a big hit in the States. Nash sets up the exotic Zara (Aileen Pringle) as a mysterious psychic who can communicate with the dead. Soon the group is fleecing an innocent young heiress, but Nash starts to regret this decision, causing a rift between him and the Hungarians, who have become used to the American high life. 

I had never seen THE MYSTIC before, and I have to say that it's one of the lesser Browning efforts that I have viewed. It doesn't have enough of the weird eccentricities of the director's usual work. Conway Tearle is no Lon Chaney--he's supposed to be playing a notorious con artist, but Tearle looks and acts more like a businessman. THE MYSTIC also has a happy ending that doesn't jibe with the rest of the story. 

The best scenes in THE MYSTIC by far are the seance sequences. They're creepy, despite the fact that Browning makes sure to show the viewer the tricks involved to accomplish them. Aileen Pringle shows plenty of spunk as Zara, and she gets to wear a number of bizarre costumes, which were designed by famed artist Erte. I believe the story would have been better served if Pringle had gotten more to do than Tearle. 

The visual quality of THE MYSTIC on this Criterion Region A Blu-ray disc is fine, although the picture is a bit soft at times. This movie is given a new score by Dean Hurley. It's a score that I have to admit I'm not a fan of. It's very avant-garde and obtrusive, and it also includes a number of sound effects that draw too much attention to themselves. 

The other two films in this Tod Browning set have new audio commentaries, but THE MYSTIC does not. There is an introduction by Browning biographer David J. Skal that gives background info on the movie. 

Even though I wasn't all that impressed with THE MYSTIC, I give Criterion credit for including a lesser-known example of Tod Browning's work on this set. THE MYSTIC isn't terrible, I just feel that there's plenty of other Browning features that have far more interesting and notable elements. The TOD BROWNING'S SIDESHOW SHOCKERS set is still a great purchase, and I intend to write a blog post on the restored version of THE UNKNOWN included on it in the future. 

Monday, October 16, 2023



THE SEA OF GRASS is a 1947 MGM production starring the legendary duo of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. 

This was one of the few Tracy-Hepburn pictures I had not seen. I had always wondered why this film never got much attention, or was not shown on TV very much. After watching it I can understand why it doesn't have much of a reputation--it's one of the weaker Tracy-Hepburn outings. 

The story starts out in 1880, as the aristocratic Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) travels from St. Louis to New Mexico to marry cattle baron Colonel Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy). Lutie finds out that Brewton has a bad reputation among the locals, especially an idealistic attorney named Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas)  who is determined to use the law to curtail his power. Lutie isn't comfortable with the Western lifestyle, and she and Brice start to become closer. She eventually goes back to St. Louis, but returns to the West when she hears her now-grown son (Robert Walker) is in trouble. 

At first glance one would assume that THE SEA OF GRASS is a sprawling Western epic, but it's actually more of a talky soap opera. According to internet research, director Elia Kazan was eager to go on location, but most of the outdoor scenes are stock footage, with characters so far away you can't really see them. When Tracy & Hepburn are supposedly out on the range, they're quite obviously in front of a projection screen, negating the sweeping scope the film was aiming for. Kazan tries to make up for this by setting up several expressionistic shot compositions. 

I feel Tracy & Hepburn worked best when they were in a contemporary story that allowed them to freely interact with each other. In THE SEA OF GRASS their natural chemistry is missing--even when their characters are getting along there's very little warmth between them. The two acting legends don't even get a lot of screen time together here. Despite the fact that he's a hard-charging independent-minded powerful landowner, Tracy is very subdued as Jim Brewton--he would later play a much more colorful cattle baron in BROKEN LANCE.

Melvyn Douglas's lawyer is supposed to be a classier alternative for Lutie, but he comes off as somewhat of a prig. One expects a major one-on-one confrontation between the lawyer and the Colonel, but it never happens. One also expects a battle between Tracy and all the homesteaders he constantly complains about, but that never happens either. 

Robert Walker doesn't show up until about 90 minutes in the story, and after only a few scenes he's on the run from the law. The young Brewton is a wild troublemaker, but despite Walker's hammy performance it's hard to care about his fate, since the viewer barely gets a chance to know him. There's a plot element suggesting that Walker is actually the son of Hepburn and Douglas, but this never gets resolved one way or the other--at least it wasn't resolved to my satisfaction. 

While the movie briefly focuses on Walker Hepburn all but disappears. She and Tracy are reunited in the end, but the climax is abrupt and underwhelming. 

Being a MGM production one knows that THE SEA OF GRASS will be technically well-made, with a glossy look to it. It also has a fine supporting cast, with the likes of Edgar Buchanan, Harry Carey, Robert Armstrong, Morris Ankrum, and Glenn Strange. But the film is a draggy two hours, and even Tracy & Hepburn can't do much to inject some life into it. Research states that THE SEA OF GRASS was, believe it or not, the most financially successful MGM Tracy & Hepburn film at the box office. I doubt even the most dedicated fan of the duo would enjoy the movie very much now. 

Monday, October 9, 2023

NEVADA (1927)


NEVADA is a 1927 silent Western from Paramount, starring three actors who would go on to have notable careers: Gary Cooper, William Powell, and Thelma Todd. 

Jim Lacy (Gary Cooper) breaks his friend Cash (Ernie Adams) out of jail, and the two go on the run, looking for a quiet place to settle down and change their ways. During a stop at what appears to be a sleepy town, Jim and Cash come to the aid of an English cattleman named Ben Ide, and the man gives them jobs on his large ranch. Jim goes by the alias "Nevada", and he's assigned to look after Ide's beautiful sister Hettie (Thelma Todd). Jim and Hettie start to fall for each other, while a gang of rustlers causes trouble on the Ide ranch. Jim decides to infiltrate the rustlers, and this puts him into conflict with another rancher named Dillon (William Powell), a man who also desires Hettie. 

NEVADA is based on a Zane Grey novel, but it's a very standard Western. Nearly everything in it is familiar or predictable: the good bad man who wants to go straight, his comic relief sidekick, the rancher's daughter who at first acts haughty and proud towards the hero, and the man behind all the cattle rustling supposedly being a respectable member of the community. The main reason to watch NEVADA are the three stars. This film was made very, very early in Gary Cooper's career, but he already has tons of screen presence, and he looks and acts as if he's been riding the range his whole life. William Powell is essentially the bad guy, but he plays the role in a disarming, self-assured manner. 

As for Thelma Todd, NEVADA was one of her first important film roles, and just like Cooper she already shows plenty of onscreen charisma. It goes without saying that she's also gorgeous, and she appears to know how to handle a horse. Cooper and Thelma have a typical classic movie "At first they act like they don't like each other, but they really do" relationship--at one point Cooper ties her to a tree to keep her away from harm. Cooper and Todd make an extremely handsome couple--director John Waters (no, not that John Waters) smartly gives the two of them several long close-ups. 

William Powell, Thelma Todd, and Gary Cooper

One major problem with watching NEVADA today is that the version of it available on a number of internet sites is in very poor condition. Due to this one isn't able to fully appreciate the outdoor locations used for the film. Completely restoring any silent picture is a costly and time-consuming process, but it's surprising that up till now someone hasn't attempted to do so for NEVADA--the three stars of the movie alone would attract interest from film geeks. 

NEVADA was such a formulaic Western, it was remade twice during the sound era. (I have not seen the other versions.) The 1927 NEVADA is a decent enough film, but it's the starring trio that makes it worthy of attention. One wishes a much better looking print of it was out there somewhere. When you realize how good Gary Cooper and Thelma Todd look in this movie, you can only imagine how attractive they would be in a restored print. 

Saturday, October 7, 2023



Evelyn Ankers has often been referred to as the Queen of Universal Classic Horror. In 1946, after she left the studio, Ankers starred as another type of queen in a movie called QUEEN OF BURLESQUE. The film was made by poverty row studio PRC and directed by the ubiquitous Sam Newfield. 

Evelyn plays Crystal McCoy, the star performer at a burlesque house. Crystal isn't happy with the theater owner, and her ire increases when a professional rival named Dolly De Voe (Jacqueline Dalya) arrives to share top billing. Soon the unpopular Dolly is found murdered, and there's plenty of suspects, with Crystal at the head of the list, As other killings ensue, Crystal and her reporter boyfriend Steve (Carleton Young) try to find out who did it. 

The term burlesque denotes all sorts of tawdry connotations, but QUEEN OF BURLESQUE is rather tame stuff. There's a few musical numbers, but nothing particularly racy about them. The numbers do give a chance for Evelyn Ankers to show off her singing abilities, and she even gets to dance a little. 

Ankers always brought a bit of elegance and refinement to her horror roles at Universal, and she's an unusual choice to play a burlesque queen. Early in the film she tries to be a hard-boiled dame, by getting into shouting matches and even attempting to start a catfight with Dolly, but you get the feeling Evelyn wasn't all that comfortable in doing so. She acts more assured in the musical numbers--she has the looks (and the legs) to go with the revealing costumes Crystal wears. (Universal horror fans will definitely see a different version of Ankers that they are used to in this movie.) 


QUEEN OF BURLESQUE can't help remind the viewer of the earlier LADY OF BURLESQUE, a much better film with a similar plot directed by William Wellman and starring Barbara Stanwyck. QUEEN doesn't have the brash attitude of LADY, and Sam Newfield is certainly no William Wellman. Almost the entire movie takes place inside the burlesque theater, and despite three murders there isn't much suspense. The story has a generic air to it, with all sorts of old movie cliches, such as a stage doorman named Pop. I do have to say the revelation of the murderer was somewhat surprising. 

The supporting cast includes Marion Martin, who ironically appeared in LADY OF BURLESQUE as a ditzy blonde performer. Here she's much more dramatic and subdued. An actual burlesque dancer named Rose La Rose has an important role, and she gets to perform an Arabian Nights type of number. Leading man Carleton Young isn't as annoying as most snoopy reporters in these types of movies are. I thought that Young (who would later become a John Ford regular) reminded me of Patric Knowles here--maybe that's due to the fact that Knowles himself was a Universal horror veteran and a frequent co-star of Evelyn Ankers. 

Classic Universal horror fans will be the main audience for QUEEN OF BURLESQUE, due to the fact that it gives the usually dignified Evelyn Ankers a chance to strut her stuff. 

Monday, October 2, 2023



One of the most famous silent films is Alfred Hitchcock's THE LODGER, a 1927 adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes' novel about Jack the Ripper. The story has been remade several times over the years, and I recently discovered a version on YouTube that gets almost no attention whatsoever. 

THE PHANTOM FIEND (also known as THE LODGER) is a 1932 British film that was the first sound version of the tale. Hitchcock himself was offered the chance to do the story again, but in the end the movie was directed (in an underwhelming fashion) by Maurice Elvey. 

The most notable thing about THE PHANTOM FIEND is that it has the same leading man as the 1927 THE LODGER: Ivor Novello. In both pictures Novello plays a mysterious man who is suspected to be a man called The Avenger, the perpetrator of a series of horrid killings of young women. 

In the 1927 THE LODGER Novello's character wasn't given a name, but in THE PHANTOM FIEND he calls himself Michel Angeloff. Angeloff is a strange fellow who becomes a lodger in the house of a lower-middle class London family, the Buntings. Daisy (Elizabeth Allan), the daughter of the family, works as a switchboard operator, and she and Angeloff start to fall for each other. But the lodger's weird ways and the continuing murders cause Daisy's parents and noisy reporter John (a very young Jack Hawkins) to believe the man is the guilty party. 

THE PHANTOM FIEND isn't on the same level as the '27 THE LODGER. It appears to have a smaller budget, and it lacks the style of Hitchcock's classic. It also isn't as good as the 1944 version of the story from 20th Century Fox. 

Ivor Novello, if anything, acts even more guilty in THE PHANTOM FIEND than he did in his first go-round as the Lodger. Norvello was certainly a handsome enough fellow (he was a huge celebrity in 1920s England), but here he uses a trace of an accent, and for the most part he speaks his dialogue in a deliberate manner. This, along with his use of an unnerving stare, gives Novello an almost Bela Lugosi-like vibe. (Ironically, at one point a police official actually compares the Avenger to a vampire.) Unlike the original lodger, Michel Angeloff is given much more of a background--he hails from Central Europe and he's a musician. 

Angeloff is still off-putting enough to make one wonder why Daisy would fall for him, especially since Elizabeth Allan (MARK OF THE VAMPIRE) injects the character with a lively, independent spirit. Her Daisy is far from a naive damsel in distress--at one point she slaps reporter (and would-be suitor) John across the face. 

It needs to be said that Jack Hawkins' John deserves such treatment. The reporter is an annoying, boorish fellow who treats Daisy as if he owns her, and also goes on about how he hates foreigners. (With the men she has to deal with in this movie one has to ask why Daisy doesn't just move away from London altogether.)

The ending of THE PHANTOM FIEND is different from the '27 THE LODGER, and it involves an element that seems to come out of nowhere just to wrap up the plot. This climax does not improve upon the original. 

It's almost unfair to write a blog post on THE PHANTOM FIEND, since the version I saw is apparently an American cut that is shorter than the original British production. The picture & sound quality was also poor. One can tell that there was an attempt at some moody photography for THE PHANTOM FIEND, but it's hard to appreciate from the version I viewed on YouTube. There's a lot of presumed "comic" moments involving Daisy's parents and John that fall flat, and there isn't a lot of suspense. There is at least one nice visual moment, when John is making a motion with his hands as if he's cutting his throat. There's an immediate cut to Angeloff moving a bow across a violin in almost the same manner. 

Perhaps one day a restored, uncut version of THE PHANTOM FIEND will be available, and then we can truly determine how effective the movie really is. Until then, the 1927 and 1944 productions of THE LODGER are the best cinematic adaptations of the story.