Thursday, July 18, 2024

CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS

 





Yesterday news broke about the passing of actress Yvonne Furneaux, best known now for being the leading lady of Hammer Films' 1959 THE MUMMY. The dark-haired exotic Furneaux also appeared in LA DOLCE VITA and REPULSION, and she also starred in a number of Italian historical adventures filmed in the late 1950s-early 60s. 

One of these adventures was CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS, a 1962 Italian-French co-production directed by peplum veteran Giacomo Gentilomo. (One of the credited screenwriters is the ubiquitous Ernesto Gastaldi.) CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS is unusual in that it deals with an obscure section of history--Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. The story is set in the Kingdom of Poland, a realm that is dealing with incursions by the Kyrgyz, an Asian tribe. 

The stoutest defenders of Poland's borders are a pair of Dukes who are brothers, Andrei (Mel Ferrer) and Sergei (Jean Claudio) of Tula. Andrei is steadfast and noble, while Sergei is hot-headed and arrogant. (Nearly every Italian sword-and-sandal/historical tale has a plot element dealing with two brothers who wind up facing off against each other.) Andrei defeats Sergei in a contest involving hand-to-hand combat that determines who should command the Polish armies. (Wouldn't there be a better way to determine command than take the risk of having your best military leaders kill each other?) This makes Sergei even more jealous and angry. When the Kyrgyz kidnap Marcia (Leticia Roman), a princess Sergei is planning to marry, he goes off after her--only to be seduced by the Queen of the Kyrgyz (Yvonne Furneaux). The Queen tempts Sergei by telling him that he and his Black Lancers should join up with her people and then attack Poland, which the two will then rule. Andrei can't believe that his brother has turned traitor, but finds out the truth, setting up a major battle between the Polish and Kyrgyz forces. 

CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS (original title I LANCIERI NERI) has plenty of the elements expected of an historical epic. There's impressive and colorful costumes and sets, hundreds of extras, horses being ridden madly across the plains, and a full-blooded music score by Mario Nascimbene. Despite all this the movie has a perfunctory feel about it at times. The dialogue (the version I watched was dubbed in English) is very stiff, as are most of the interactions of the cast. A Mario Bava, or even a Antonio Margheriti, might have given the production more imagination & flair. 



Yvonne Furneaux and Leticia Roman in CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS



Yvonne Furneaux is by far the best thing about the film. Her Queen is cold, cunning, and devious, but her dark beauty is enough to ensnare Sergei into her web. The Queen isn't adverse to doing her own handiwork, and she's also not adverse to killing one of her own subjects if it furthers her schemes. Leticia Roman (who starred in Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) is the light-haired counterpart to the Queen. Roman is essentially a fairy-tale damsel in distress, and even though she's betrothed to Sergei, the script makes plain that she and Andrei are the ones really in love with one another. 

Mel Ferrer doesn't look all that happy being in this movie. I'm sure he realized that Andrei isn't a role that one can do much with--the character reacts to events rather than instigates them. Andrei isn't a swashbuckling Errol Flynn type--he's much too noble and formal for that. Jean Caudio gets the much showier role as Sergei, but the character is more of a conceited jerk than memorably villainous. Andrei and Sergei do get to have a climatic sword fight in a burning temple. 

One thing that does need to be mentioned about CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS is that even though the Kyrgyz are the nominal bad guys, they are not portrayed as cardboard savages. It's their Queen and Sergei that causes all the mischief, and it's even suggested that the Kyrgyz are being treated unfairly by the Poles. 

I watched this film on the Tubi streaming channel, and it was presented in a decent widescreen print, with an underwhelming English dub track. CHARGE OF THE BLACK LANCERS isn't one of the best examples of the Italian historical epic, but it's prime late night viewing, and it shows off Yvonne Furneaux quite well. 



Monday, July 15, 2024

THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL

 





THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL is a 1937 romantic comedy from Warner Bros., directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Fernand Gravet & Joan Blondell. The movie was written by Norman Krasna and none other than Groucho Marx. 

Alfred (Fernand Gravet) is an ex-king of an unnamed European country who now resides in Paris in luxurious exile. The former royal is bored with his existence, until he reluctantly attends the Folies Bergere one night and discovers a flirty chorus girl (Joan Blondell) trying to attract his attention. Alfred assumes he'll just have a fling with her but the chorus girl, an American named Dorothy, isn't all that taken by his indolent ways. In classic movie fashion, the two fight, argue, deceive and fall in love with one another. 

THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL was a starring vehicle for Belgian-born actor Fernand Gravey, whose name was adjusted to "Gravet" for American audiences. Warners tried very hard to turn Gravet into a star--after this film, the actor and Mervyn LeRoy reunited to make FOOLS FOR SCANDAL, which also starred Carole Lombard. FOOLS FOR SCANDAL is now considered one of Lombard's worst films (especially by me), and THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL isn't all that much better. 

It's apparent that Warners was trying to make Gravet out to be a suave, sophisticated light romantic leading man. In this film and in FOOLS FOR SCANDAL, Gravet comes off as annoying and silly instead of witty or charming. In Gravet's defense it must be pointed out that the character of King Alfred doesn't do him any favors. Alfred spends most of the film drunk or asleep, and despite all his money and all the time on his hands, he isn't particularly keen to take advantage of his privileged status. One can easily see why Joan Blondell's Dorothy would play hard to get, but one can't believe she would fall for such a person, despite all his money. It's ironic that Groucho Marx co-wrote the script for this, since King Alfred is the type of elitist fop that the onscreen Groucho would verbally shred to pieces. 

As a matter of fact, while watching this film I thought that it would have been much better if Groucho himself played the role of the King. The sardonic wit that the Marx Brother was known for is sadly absent here. The film lacks the snap and crackle of the best screwball comedies of the era, and the relationship between the King and Dorothy grows tiresome after a while. 

The best thing by far in this movie is Joan Blondell, who displays her usual spunk and effervescent attitude. The thing is, this production is built around Fernand Gravet. He gets most of the close-ups and screen time, and in a number of sequences Blondell's on-camera time is reduced to some reaction shots. Trooper that she was, Blondell tries hard to make it work, but you have to wonder after all the time and energy she spent on the Warners backlot how she felt playing second fiddle to a mediocre European. 



Joan Blondell in a publicity still for THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL

 

The supporting cast for the film isn't as notable as most Warners pictures made around this period. Edward Everett Horton does his typical flighty and fussy bit as a Count who is Alfred's advisor and protector, and Alan Mowbray plays a waiter who gets involved in the machinations of the leading couple's problems. Jane Wyman has a small role, and gets to use a French accent, as Dorothy's friend. 

Warners didn't learn much from THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL. In FOOLS FOR SCANDAL, they cast Gravet as another European nobleman based in Paris, who chases after another spunky American female (Carole Lombard). That film didn't work either, and Gravet was soon back across the Atlantic, where he had a long acting career. Groucho Marx never wrote a screenplay for another film, which is somewhat disappointing. (For all I know, what Groucho originally wrote for this film might have been far better than what wound up on screen.) As for the final verdict on THE KING AND THE CHORUS GIRL, it's worth watching for Joan Blondell, but you have to put up with way too much Fernand Gravet to fully enjoy her performance. 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

TOO HOT TO HANDLE (AKA PLAYGIRL AFTER DARK)

 







In August of 1959 Christopher Lee worked on two different films with very similar plots. Both movies dealt with the tawdry world of London strip joints. The first, BEAT GIRL, is a picture I wrote a blog post about a couple years ago. The second, TOO HOT TO HANDLE (titled PLAYGIRL AFTER DARK in America), I viewed for the very first time on the Tubi streaming channel last night. 

In BEAT GIRL Lee played a notorious nightclub owner. In TOO HOT TO HANDLE Lee is the right-hand man to a notorious nightclub owner, Johnny Solo (Leo Genn). Johnny owns the Pink Flamingo, a popular club located in Soho. The Pink Flamingo is raking in money, despite the fact that its main competitor, The Diamond Horseshoe, is right across the street. The main attraction at the Pink Flamingo is the curvaceous Midnight Franklin (Jayne Mansfield), who also happens to be in a relationship with Johnny. 

One would think that with his professional and personal life, Johnny's got it made. But what he doesn't know is that his associate Novak (Christopher Lee) is conspiring with the Diamond Horseshoe's owner Diamonds Dielli (Sheldon Lawrence) to take over the Pink Flamingo. As various threats against his life and club increase, Midnight begs Johnny to get out of the strip club game, Meanwhile, a Frenchman (Carl Boehm) who is writing an article about the Pink Flamingo tries to get closer to one of the dancers, a mysterious woman who doesn't want to reveal her past (Danik Patisson), while Johnny knowingly hires an underage girl (Barbara Windsor), much to his eventual regret. 

TOO HOT TO HANDLE was directed by Terence Young (DR. NO), who had crossed paths with Christopher Lee a number of times by the shooting of this film. Young keeps all the gangster and soap opera elements moving along, but the movie is hampered by a number of musical acts at the club that come off as more silly than steamy. 

British actor Leo Genn usually played upper-class or military figures, and he's an off-beat choice to fill the role of a tough nightclub owner who has had to battle his whole life. Genn actually does very well as Johnny Solo, even though it is hard to believe it when he fights off a bunch of goons at once. Even more off-beat is the idea of Genn and Jayne Mansfield as a romantic couple, but the thing is....you totally believe that the two care about and love each other. Mansfield gets plenty of chances to strut her stuff on the Pink Flamingo's stage, but her Midnight isn't a brazen hussy or a dumb blonde. She's a woman who knows all too well what nightclub artists like her have to deal with, yet she is also at a loss to figure out how to start a new life. Mansfield is surprisingly good here, giving depth to what easily could have been a cliched character. 

Christopher Lee's Novak is a guy the viewer immediately distrusts at first sight, with his pencil-thin mustache and cheap gangster suit. Novak is also the MC at the Pink Flamingo, and it's fun to watch Lee go from glowering menace to an enthusiastic conveyor of the nightclub's delights. 

TOO HOT TO HANDLE provides plenty of eye candy, with all sorts of scenes showing various dancers blessed with sexy figures prancing about in skimpy costumes. (There's also a backstage catfight). The movie also shows that the strip club life isn't all glamour and glitz. The patrons of the Pink Flamingo are shown to be overwhelmingly middle-aged (or older) lonely businessmen, and the dancing girls are expected to be extra nice to the more wealthy customers. The subplot concerning Barbara Windsor's character sends the film down a dark turn, and it leads to a rather unexpected climax. 

The version of TOO HOT TO HANDLE shown on Tubi appeared uncut, but the colors on it were so faded that most of the time you couldn't even tell what the colors were (this presentation did no favors toward Otto Heller's Eastmancolor cinematography). Despite this I enjoyed the film. The entire subplot involving Carl Boehm could have been easily done away with, and Christopher Lee doesn't get the big climatic scene his character deserves, but the relationship between Leo Genn and Jayne Mansfield, and those two actors' down-to-earth portrayal of it, makes the story work. 

Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Eric Taylor Script For THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN

 





One of the many impressive things about the SCRIPTS FOR THE CRYPT: THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN book is that it contains a reproduction of an entire early script for the film, written by Eric Taylor. (Taylor is credited on THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN for the original story.) This script is significantly different from what ended up in the film. 

I usually don't get into the whole "early script drafts/unmade films" sub-genre.....I would rather spend time discussing what WAS actually made instead of something that never got produced. But the SCRIPTS FROM THE CRYPT: THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN volume gives us a glimpse into how the famed Universal Monster movie series could have gone down a divergent path. 

The major thing about Eric Taylor's script is that it focuses on Wolf Frankenstein, the character played by Basil Rathbone in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. While Taylor brings back Wolf, he does not bring back Wolf's wife Elsa from the proceeding film, played by Josephine Hutchinson. Taylor's script explains that Elsa committed suicide due to her husband's involvement with the Monster! Wolf is now married to another woman named Elayne, and his young son from the last Frankenstein film, played by Donnie Dunagan, is not even mentioned. Wolf was a jittery, high-strung fellow in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and he's not all that warm and friendly in Taylor's GHOST script either. At one point the script has Wolf looking at his second wife in a way that makes the reader wonder if he's contemplating putting her brain inside the monster's body. 

The Taylor script starts out very much like how the actual version of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN begins--with the villagers complaining about how the Monster has cursed them, and their destruction of the Frankenstein castle. Ygor and the Monster scurry away, but in this script they are looking for Wolf Frankenstein, not his brother Ludwig. Wolf runs a sanitarium just like Ludwig does in GHOST, hoping that his groundbreaking work in dealing with mental illnesses will wipe away the shame he and his family carry over the creation of the Monster. (Wolf doesn't want anyone to know about his or his family's past, but he still goes by the name of Frankenstein.) Wolf is assisted in his work by his second wife and his sister-in-law Martha Bohmer (a surname which will wind up being used for Lionel Atwill's character in the final version of GHOST). 

Wolf is also assisted by a hunchback named Theodor. This fellow also wanted to be a great doctor, but his appearance has not allowed him to reach his dream. Theodor and Ygor hit it off after the latter brings the Monster to Wolf's sanitarium, and the two misshapen creatures concoct a plan. Ygor will have his brain transplanted into the Monster, while Theodor will gather all the poor disfigured and crippled folk around the countryside and turn them into an army that will take over and institute a new order. 

Wolf wants nothing to do with Ygor and the Monster, but a conversation with the spirit of his father (as in the final version of GHOST) changes his mind. While the Monster befriends a little girl named Cloestine (as also in the final film), the army of cripples attacks the village, while Theodor tricks Wolf into putting Ygor's brain into the Monster. When Wolf finds out what he has done, he blows up his own laboratory, destroying himself and (supposedly) the Monster, while Elayne and little Cloestine escape. 

One element that jumps out about the Taylor script is the sub-plot concerning the "army of cripples" that Theodor and Ygor gather to get their revenge on the world. I'm sure that even in 1942 the idea that a bunch of physically afflicted people could be led to become a disaffected and vengeful mob would have been considered unseemly, especially with a World War going on, and innocent people being maimed and crippled because of it. The Taylor script has a very dark tone to it--nearly every character in it has some sort of chip on his or her shoulder. There's no generic romantic couple as such, unless one counts Wolf and his second wife (and their relationship seems tenuous at best). 

The character of Theodor is noteworthy--one assumes that he morphed into what became Dr. Bohmer in the final film. The fact that Theodor was supposed to be a hunchback makes one wonder if even a Universal monster film could have had enough room for two quirky scientist's assistants. If Theodor had been in the final film, the character would have taken a lot of the spotlight away from Bela Lugosi's Ygor. One has to wonder...who would have played Theodor? Dwight Frye immediately comes to mind, but at this point Universal didn't appear to want to use him in anything more than a bit part. Would Universal have cast future Frankenstein hunchback J. Carrol Naish? 

The idea of having Wolf Frankenstein return--without the family he had in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN--is worthy of discussion. It has to be asked why Universal did not have Wolf in the final film. Was Basil Rathbone unavailable? Or...did Rathbone read the script, and have misgivings about it? (Wolf doesn't come off very well in the Taylor script.) Another factor has to be considered.....Universal was starting up their Sherlock Holmes series with Rathbone as the master sleuth, and perhaps the studio wanted the actor to focus on that. 

You may have noticed that I haven't really talked about how the Monster itself comes off in the Taylor script. That's mainly due to the fact that the Monster doesn't have much of anything to do in the Taylor version. Just like in the actual GHOST, the Monster is a lumbering, menacing presence who doesn't have much of an impact until Ygor's brain gets put into its head. You can look down on Lon Chaney Jr's stoic portrayal of the Monster in GHOST, but after reading the Taylor script it's obvious that Universal now saw the creature as generic threat rather than a fully realized character. 

I personally feel that THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN we know is far better than the story put forth by Eric Taylor's script. If the Taylor script had been filmed, we wouldn't have gotten the great Lionel Atwill as Dr. Bohmer, and we wouldn't have gotten Evelyn Ankers (although she might have been cast as Wolf Frankenstein's second wife). We also probably wouldn't have gotten to see all the familiar character actors that were cast in GHOST. I believe that Universal made the right decision in not filming the Taylor script as written. 

Thursday, July 4, 2024

DESTINATION INNER SPACE










Included on Kino's SCI-FI CHILLERS Blu-ray release is the 1966 underwater adventure DESTINATION INNER SPACE. 

The story takes place in a sea lab resting on the ocean floor, crewed by scientists and civilians. The lab has picked up a strange underwater signal, and a Naval Commander named Wayne (Scott Brady) arrives on the base to investigate. The signal is actually a flying saucer-type craft, and Wayne and others from the sea lab enter the ship, where they discover a strange cylinder. The group brings the cylinder back to the base, where it grows larger, and eventually bursts open to reveal a large amphibian creature. Wayne and the staff of the sea lab must battle the creature while trying to investigate its origins. 

DESTINATION INNER SPACE may have been made in 1966, but it feels like it comes from 1956. The main reason for that is the story and low budget, but the main cast plays a part in that as well. Scott Brady, Sheree North, and Gary Merrill all had much better acting opportunities in the Fifties. 

The big twist in this genre tale is that the dangerous alien creature is underwater instead of in outer space. It is a unique idea, although it appears the major reason for it was to save money. This movie has plenty of underwater footage, but it is used in the same way as a lot of cheap sci-fi pics used military stock footage--to pad the running time without enlarging the budget. The interior of the sea lab has a generic military-scientific facility look to it, while the exterior of the sea lab and the 'swimming' (as opposed to flying) saucer are models. The problem with the sea lab and saucer models is that they are placed in actual underwater locations, which means that they are shown against real underwater plants and terrain. The result is the perspective is out of whack, and they look just like the small models that they are. 

As for the amphibious creature, it looks like a child's version of the Creature of the Black Lagoon. It's also brightly colored, so instead of being menacing, it comes off as something from either a kiddie show or an early Doctor Who episode. (One does have to give the main cast credit for keeping a straight face around it, and reacting to it as if it is a genuine threat.) More expressive lighting on the creature might--I say might--have helped a bit. (As a matter of fact, the whole movie might have worked better if it had been in black & white and in full frame. Being in color and in widescreen just exacerbates the movie's production problems.) 

Scott Brady does a decent job as the main hero, though he comes off at times as a grumpy middle-aged man (multiple times he struggles to strap scuba gear around his belly). The younger macho male hero is played by Mike Road, who was the voice of Race Bannon on the original JONNY QUEST animated TV show. The script establishes that Brady and Road's characters have a tumultuous history, which caused me to predict exactly how these men would fare at the end of the film. Sheree North and Wende Wagner play female members of the sea lab crew, and their main function is to act as romantic foils to Brady and Road, and to scream loudly when appropriate. Gary Merrill plays a scientist, who as expected wants to study the creature while Brady wants to destroy it. John Howard plays the sea lab's doctor, and he's also in THE UNKNOWN TERROR, which is also featured on the same Kino set as this film. 

The movie was directed in a generic, journeyman-like fashion by Francis D. Lyon, and written by Arthur C. Pierce. DESTINATION INNER SPACE has the overlit, bland look of 1960s television. (It feels very much like an episode of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.) 

Something that struck me while watching this movie for the first time--it has a lot in common with (believe it or not) James Cameron's THE ABYSS. An underwater facility staffed by civilians, an encounter with aliens, a mile-long trench located nearby, a military officer arriving at the facility and causing tension, the facility being cut off from the surface world and the people inside struggling to stay alive and faced with a time limit--both DESTINATION INNER SPACE and THE ABYSS have these things in common. I'm certainly not trying to say that both films are comparable in quantity, but it is something to think about. 

DESTINATION INNER SPACE isn't a great science fiction film by any means, but it is serviceable and watchable enough. A better looking creature would have helped things considerably. 



 

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Book Review--SCRIPTS FROM THE CRYPT: THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN











 


The 16th volume in the SCRIPTS FROM THE CRYPT series from Bear Manor Media focuses on THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, Universal's 1942 follow-up to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. What makes this book particularly noteworthy is that it's nearly 400 pages, a treasure trove of facts, trivia, commentary, analysis, stills, and just plain Monster Kid fun. 

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN may not be the greatest classic horror film in the world, and it's certainly not one of the longest, clocking in at about 67 minutes. But this book more than makes clear that the film has all sorts of interesting elements to it, including a top cast, excellent production details, and that classic monster movie attitude only Universal of the 1930s-40s could provide. 

The book starts out with an extensive production history of the movie by Greg Mank, and then presents Eric Taylor's original script for the film, which was quite different than what was eventually shot. (I'm thinking about writing a blog post on Taylor's script.) Tom Weaver discusses the Taylor script, and makes a number of observations about the finished film. There's also a reproduction of the movie's pressbook, an analysis of the character of Ludwig Frankenstein by Frank Dello Stritto, and an examination of the various "Igor" types in Frankenstein films by Bill Cooke. 

There's plenty more than that, though......Greg Mank also has chapters on the personal lives of actors Doris Lloyd and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, while Roger Hurlburt presents autographs he has collected from numerous members of THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN's cast & crew. There are also mini-bios of a few of the supporting actors of GHOST, a photo gallery focusing on the film's director, George Waggner, and a rare interview with Lon Chaney Jr. 

Needless to say, you get your money's worth with this book, and most importantly, it's a fun, entertaining read. A movie like THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN shouldn't have a stuffy, dour tome written about it. The Universal Classic Horror films were meant to be entertaining.....you can admire and appreciate them without treating them as if they belong on a pedestal. There's a lot of important info in this SCRIPTS FROM THE CRYPT entry, but there's also a lot of laughs and smiles as well. The best way I can describe this book is that while reading it I felt as if I was back at Monster Bash, sitting around listening to my favorite experts on classic monster movies having a great round-table on THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. 

After reading this book I went and re-watched THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. I wouldn't say that my opinion on it has changed considerably, but I did have a new and better appreciation for the film, and the people who were involved in the making of it. SCRIPTS FROM THE CRYPT: THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN is pure Monster Movie Fan catnip, and an enjoyable examination of a movie that will delight and surprise even those who have watched it dozens of times. 

Saturday, June 22, 2024

THE UNKNOWN TERROR

 







THE UNKNOWN TERROR (1957) was previously unknown to me. The movie is included in Kino's SCI-FI CHILLERS COLLECTION, a two-disc set containing three films. 

Rich explorer Dan Matthews (John Howard) intends to go searching for the mysterious "Cave of Death", a place where his wife's brother never returned from. Dan and his wife, Gina (Mala Powers) are joined in the quest by Pete Morgan (Paul Richards), a cave expert who has a bum leg due to a climbing accident involving him and Dan. The trio arrive at the native village near the cave, and discover an American doctor named Ramsey (Gerald Milton) who is experimenting with strange fungi. Needless to say, the fungi have gone out of control, affecting the natives and the dangerous cave. 

THE UNKNOWN TERROR is a lackadaisical effort--it takes over half the movie to actually get to the cave, and there's more talk than action. The two leads, John Howard and Paul Richards, are a glum-looking duo lacking in spirit--this movie sorely needed a Richard Denning, Kenneth Tobey, or even a John Agar. (During filming John Howard had to have been wondering how he got from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY to this.) Mala Powers doesn't get much to do as the obligatory pretty female, but she does get a scene where she's chased by one of the fungi-infected natives while she's wearing a nightgown. 

As for the weird Dr. Ramsey, he's one of the most mediocre mad scientists in low budget sci-fi/horror history. (The big, beefy, and bald Gerald Milton looks more like a truck driver than a scheming mad doctor.) Why Ramsey is hiding out in a remote jungle location and experimenting with fungi is never made entirely clear. The doc explains to the protagonists that due to his medical knowledge he's become something of a god to the locals, and he's even married to a beautiful native maiden (May Wynn). This comely lass appears to develop an interest in Pete, but like every plot element in this tale, this idea isn't developed enough. 

Something else that isn't developed enough is where, exactly, the "Cave of Death" is. Some reviews of the film suggest that it's in South America, others in Mexico. There's a sense that the cave and the village are on an island--maybe the West Indies?? At the beginning of the film, Dan Matthews holds a party at his home where calypso singer Sir Lancelot performs a folk tune about how a person must suffer before being born again. Matthews believes that this song somehow establishes the validity of the "Cave of Death", although, once again, it's never explained why this is. (Sir Lancelot, of course, will be familiar to classic horror fans for his appearances in the RKO Val Lewton series of films. He even gets special billing on the poster above, although I doubt people went to see this film specifically for him.) 

When the out-of-control fungus is finally revealed, the viewer is shocked to discover that it resembles--giant soap suds! (While watching the climax of THE UNKNOWN TERROR, I couldn't help thinking about that episode of THE BRADY BUNCH where Bobby caused the washing machine to go crazy.) The soapy suds have caused a few of the natives to turn into grotesque monsters (unfortunately we don't get much of a look at their special makeup). At the very last minute, Dr. Ramsey reveals that if the fungus isn't stopped, it will take over the world! (Couldn't the authorities have used a bunch of thick towels to dry the suds up??) 

This ending doesn't exactly get the viewer's heart racing, and along with the generic fake jungle sets, "natives" who are obviously white Americans, and stodgy acting and dialogue, THE UNKNOWN TERROR winds up near the bottom of the 1950s low-budget sci-fi/horror cycle. 

The film was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, who is much better known for his work in Westerns. The movie was shot in Regalscope, a 2.35:1 widescreen process that a story like this doesn't deserve. The widescreen isn't used in a particularly engaging way, and, if anything, it makes the movie's production design look cheaper. 

The soap suds of THE UNKNOWN TERROR won't terrify anyone--unless you're Pig Pen from the "Peanuts" comic strip. 



Sunday, June 16, 2024

THE BENSON MURDER CASE On Blu-ray From Kino

 







The final film in the Kino Philo Vance Collection Blu-ray release is THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930). It was the third Vance film made by Paramount starring William Powell, but it was based on the very first Vance novel written by S.S. Van Dine. 

After the Wall Street crash of 1929, plenty of folks have reason to be angry at stockbroker Anthony Benson (Richard Tucker). A handful of those folks happen to be at the country house of Benson on a dark and stormy night. Also at the residence is the upper-class amateur sleuth Philo Vance (William Powell), and Benson winds up dead, due to a gunshot wound. With the body of the murder victim literally falling down the stairs right in front of him, Vance can't help but try and solve the case. 

THE BENSON MURDER CASE comes off more like a stage play instead of a feature film. Most of the scenes are covered by a master shot, with very little editing and multiple characters engaging in dialogue exchanges. The dialogue is hard to make out at times, and despite the fact that this is the shortest film in the set, the pace drags. The lack of background music certainly doesn't help matters. Frank Tuttle returns as director, but his main concern here seems to have been to get the shooting done as fast as possible. 

Among the suspects are a shady big-shot (William "Stage" Boyd), a nervous gigolo (Paul Lukas), a golddigger (Natalie Moorhead), and a shifty servant (Mischa Auer). Eugene Pallette returns as Sgt. Heath, but even he's hard-pressed to bring some life to the proceedings. 

I have actually read the novel of THE BENSON MURDER CASE, and the film version makes several changes to the book (not for the better, in my opinion). In the book Benson is found murdered in his downtown New York City dwelling, and the reader never gets to encounter the man while he is alive. The movie version obviously went for the "all the suspects are in a rambling home when the murder happens" scenario. The film also has Vance gather everyone up and bring them back to the scene of the crime in time-honored fashion. 

THE BENSON MURDER CASE looks and sounds decent enough on this Kino Blu-ray (the audio difficulties on the film are due to the technology of the early talkie era). The audio commentary for this movie features Jason A. Ney, who goes into the transition between silent and sound Hollywood films, the background and legacy of S.S. Van Dine, and how William Powell became a major star. Ney also goes over all twenty of the rules S.S. Van Dine laid out for successful detective fiction, and how they correspond with the film. (Needless to say, this takes up a bit of time.) 

When it comes to the overall Philo Vance Kino set, by far the best film out of the three is THE GREENE MURDER CASE. I believe this is a set that will appeal more to film buffs than the general public--the three films each have a not quite silent, not quite talkie offbeat quality about them. William Powell fans will certainly appreciate this collection, although he doesn't really get a chance to show how effective he could be. The three audio commentaries on this disc are all worth listening to, and give the viewer plenty of info on the movies and on the character of Philo Vance. 

William Powell would later do a comedic cameo as Vance in the variety revue PARAMOUNT ON PARADE (Eugene Pallette would also appear alongside him as Sgt. Heath). Powell would play Vance "officially" one more time in Warners' 1933 THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, which is considered by many to be the best overall Philo Vance picture. 

The character of Vance would be played by many other actors in many other films. If Vance is remembered or mentioned by anyone at all these days, it's usually in conjunction with William Powell. Ironically Powell's portrayal of Vance is very different from how the character comes off in the S.S. Van Dine novels. The literary Vance is foppish, vain, and misanthropic. I personally feel that the actor who could have best presented the Philo Vance as portrayed in the novels would have been Clifton Webb--but would anyone have wanted to spend so much time with such a snobbish person?? 

The three films in this Philo Vance Blu-ray Collection may not be major cinematic efforts, but Kino deserves plenty of credit for making them available for a modern audience. 



Saturday, June 15, 2024

DEATH ON THE DIAMOND

 





DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is a 1934 MGM mystery-comedy that stands out for mixing murder with Major League Baseball. The story follows the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, which is fighting for the National League pennant. 

The team's fortunes are of great concern to the manager/owner, Pop Clark (David Landau). Pop has had to invest everything he has to keep the Cardinals running, and if the team falters, he'll have to sell it. One of Pop's main investments for the new season is the contract of a promising pitcher from the Texas League named Larry Kelly (Robert Young). The somewhat cocky rookie becomes a star, and even starts dating Pop's daughter Frances (Madge Evans), who is the club secretary. The Cardinals start to rise in the standings, but a number of shady characters are hanging around the club, and an attempt is made on Larry's life. As the end of the season nears, and the Cardinals are closing in on the pennant, players actually wind up being murdered, while Larry and the police try to find the culprit. 

One thing that must be said about DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is that it isn't the most realistic movie in the world. The thing is, it moves along so fast, and is so entertaining, that even a hardcore baseball buff like myself doesn't mind. The murders are quite grotesque--one player is shot by a sniper while heading for home plate, and another is killed after eating a hot dog covered with poisoned mustard! Another player is strangled while in the clubhouse, and his body is stuffed in a locker--and when the locker is opened, the corpse falls right toward the camera, much in the same manner as the famous shot in THE CAT AND THE CANARY. 

This grotesqueness, however, is matched by a snappy comic sensibility, no doubt provided by director Edward Sedgwick, who had experience with fast-moving humor. There's so much sarcastic dialogue, and so many smart aleck characters, that this film feels more like it was made by Warner Bros. than MGM. Among the scene stealers are Nat Pendleton as a dopey Cardinal, Ted Healy as a goofy umpire, Edward Brophy as a dull-witted cop, and Paul Kelly as a snoopy sportswriter. There's also C. Edward Gordon as a shady gambler, and Mickey Rooney as a clubhouse boy. Playing bit parts are Walter Brennan and Ward Bond. 

Robert Young is effective enough in the starring role, and his pitching motion is acceptable enough, although it must be said he probably couldn't break a pane of glass with his throws. Madge Evans is cute and perky as the obligatory love interest, and David Landau does very well with the role of Pop. (By the way, the situation of Pop needing the team to win the pennant in order to keep control of it is very much like the plot of the film of THE NATURAL--where the name of Wilford Brimley's manager/owner was also Pop! Also remember that in THE NATURAL a player dies on the field as well.) 



Madge Evans. Robert Young, and David Landau


One thing baseball geeks will love about DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is getting to see the accurate 1934 uniforms of the teams shown in the film, and the footage taken at Sportsman's Park, the Cardinals' home field at the time. What baseball geeks may not appreciate is the climax of the film. The pennant race is going down to the wire, and the Cardinals are in the thick of it--but, despite players actually being murdered on the field and at the park, the games are allowed to continue! There's even a meeting at the league offices, where a Commissioner Landis-type figure called "The Judge" is talked out of canceling the remaining games by Pop and Frances. (Their excuse is that it will be detrimental to America if the season was stopped!) 

The final game, in which the Cardinals must win, has police stationed all over the park, in the hope that the murderer will show himself. It naturally falls to Larry to not only discover and stop the killer but to also save the Cardinals season. How this is accomplished is by an astounding series of events that even Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani combined couldn't even pull off. You'll just have to see it yourself to believe it. (I honestly did guess who the killer turned out to be, going by the old movie adage "it's the least likeliest suspect". But when you do find out who the killer is, you start to realize how much more improbable the murders really were.) 

DEATH ON THE DIAMOND is pretty ridiculous, but it's so fast-moving and fun that the viewer won't mind. I might as well mention that the real 1934 St. Louis Cardinals not only won the National League pennant...they also won the World Series. Obviously DEATH ON THE DIAMOND didn't jinx the actual Cardinals, and obviously some MGM executive picked the right team to feature in a full-length film. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

LONG LIVE YOUR DEATH!

 








LONG LIVE YOUR DEATH! is a 1971 Euro Western starring Franco Nero and Eli Wallach, and directed by Duccio Tessari, the man behind the original Ringo films. The movie's Italian title is VIVA LA MUERTE...TUA! and it is also known as DON"T TURN THE OTHER CHEEK! 

The movie is part of a sub-genre of spaghetti westerns that deal with the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. It is reminiscent of such films as THE MERCENARY and COMPANEROS, and it has elements of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (the character that Eli Wallach plays is essentially an alternate version of Tuco) and A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE. 

Franco Nero is a Russian Prince named Orlowsky, who for some reason roams the American West making his living as a bandit. The Prince stumbles across some information about a buried treasure in Mexico, and he springs from jail another bandit called Lozoya (Eli Wallach). Lozoya knows the rest of the info about where the treasure is at, so he and the Prince form the typical Euro Western back and forth uneasy partnership to get the money. Along the way Lozoya is mistaken for a legendary Mexican revolutionary called El Salvador, and an Irish reporter named Mary O'Donnell (Lynn Redgrave) wants to use this situation to inspire the peasants to fight the Federal troops, and get a story she can use. The Prince, Lozoya, and Mary spend plenty of time double-crossing one another, while the Federal authorities and a determined sheriff (Horst Janson) are hot on their trail. 

LONG LIVE YOUR DEATH! is an entertaining story, but it has a very inconsistent tone. Much of the movie is quite comedic, with Eli Wallach and even Franco Nero hamming it up and acting silly. Much of the action has an almost Three Stooges feel to it (if you've ever wanted to see a member of the Redgrave acting family engage in a slapstick fistfight with multiple soldiers, here's your chance). A main plot point is that directions to the buried treasure are written on the rear ends of different men (this explains the DON'T TURN THE OTHER CHEEK! title). Among all the goofiness, however, is a sub-plot dealing with Lozoya's sister and nephew, who suffer a horrid fate from Federal troops. This element sits very uneasily with all the other antics, and because of that doesn't make the impact that it should. The climatic battle between the rebels and the Federals has some resemblance to the final sequence to TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, and an attempt is made to have Lozoya temporarily change his greedy ways, but Nero and Wallach remain con artists all the way to the end. 

The character played by Lynn Redgrave deserves some discussion. She's supposedly all about helping the common folk overcome their cruel masters, but she's also made out to be an annoying fool (the fact that she's a journalist also causes most people in the film to mistrust her). Redgrave broadly overplays Mary, and she and the handsome Nero do not wind up together. Ironically, in real life Franco was involved in a relationship with Lynn Redgrave's sister Vanessa, a woman known for her left-wing political activism. Maybe I'm reading too much into the casting, but I wonder if the character of Mary was meant to be a satire of celebrities of the time like Redgrave and Jane Fonda who took an interest in Third World problems. 

There's always a very strange character (or more) in most Euro Westerns, and the one that sticks out in this picture is the corrupt sheriff played by Horst Janson (CAPTAIN KRONOS). The sheriff is apparently a cousin to Nero's Russian Prince (a backstory that isn't explained), and he wears a steel corset strapped around his torso. Eduardo Fajardo, the main villain of DJANGO, plays a Mexican general, but here he's more silly than dangerous. 

LONG LIVE YOUR DEATH! is worth watching--Duccio Tessari keeps things hopping--but the Trinity-style elements keep it from being one of the better spaghetti westerns dealing with the Mexican revolution. A bit more attention should have been paid to the idea of outsiders involving themselves in foreign revolutions and what "help" these interlopers actually offer. 


Saturday, June 8, 2024

THE PHANTOM SPEAKS

 







THE PHANTOM SPEAKS (1945) is one of four films included in Kino's two-disc Blu-ray REPUBLIC PICTURES HORROR COLLECTION set. Two of the films--THE LADY AND THE MONSTER and VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES--I've written blog posts about in the past few years. I covered THE CATMAN OF PARIS a few days ago. 

THE PHANTOM SPEAKS may have been new to me, but its plot elements are awfully familiar. A psychic scientist named Dr. Paul Renwick (Stanley Ridges) is convinced that the spirit of a person can exist after physical death, if that person's willpower is strong enough. Renwick believes he has found such a person in the form of Harvey Bogardus (Tom Powers), a gangster sentenced to die in the electric chair. Renwick visits Bogardus an hour before the murderer's execution, and impresses upon him the fantastical theory. A few days later Renwick makes contact with the spirit of Bogardus, and the criminal's will is so great he's soon able to take over the doctor and make him kill those responsible for his conviction. Renwick tries to resist, but Bogardus' power grows stronger and stronger. 

Stanley Ridges had already played a medical man taken over by the essence of a dead gangster in Universal's BLACK FRIDAY, a film THE PHANTOM SPEAKS has a lot in common with. PHANTOM also has a lot of similarities with THE LADY AND THE MONSTER, a movie Republic had made just the year before (Richard Arlen appears in both). Ridges does a good job, but it's hard to believe that the mild-mannered Renwick would be able to convince the hard-bitten killer Bogardus that if he just puts his mind to it, his spirit will live on. (Bogardus' "comeback" is accomplished so easily one wonders why all sorts of folks haven't done this already.) 

The idea of gangsters involved with people living on after death also reminds one of the Boris Karloff entries of the 1930s like THE WALKING DEAD and THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG. In his great book POVERTY ROW HORRORS!, Tom Weaver also makes a comparison of THE PHANTOM SPEAKS to SUPERNATURAL, a 1933 Paramount film that had Carole Lombard possessed by a female serial killer. This picture could also be called an ancestor to INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN, where Lon Chaney Jr. plays an executed killer who is revived to sow more havoc. All these movies are a lot more interesting than THE PHANTOM SPEAKS, which plods along most of the time. 

The main thing that makes THE PHANTOM SPEAKS stick out is the big-city crime element, although that's more fitting for the Pre-Code era. The ending is also notable for the fact that it is rather ambiguous, and might even be looked upon as a way to get around the Production Code. 

Richard Arlen plays the annoying newspaper reporter investigating the case (another element more fitting for a movie made in the early 30s). Arlen's character happens to be romancing Dr. Renwick's daughter, played by Lynne Roberts. This is a situation that one would think would offer some possibilities, but they never happen. Tom Powers does well as Bogardus, in a generic tough-guy sort of way. Marion Martin, who played all sorts of blonde showgirls in her acting career, plays another here as Bogardus' treacherous widow, but she doesn't get much screen time. 

Thinking about the supporting cast reminds me of something else Tom Weaver pointed out in the POVERTY ROW HORRORS! book--the fact that in the Republic horror film of the 1940s, the actors used in them, while competent enough, weren't nearly as notable or interesting as the performers who showed up in even the lesser Universal thrillers of the same decade. (Can you imagine, if, say Bela Lugosi played Dr. Renwick, or someone like Skelton Knaggs was an associate of Bogardus?) 

And that's the thing about the films in the REPUBLIC PICTURES HORROR COLLECTION. They're all decent enough, but they seem to lack something when compared to the Universal or even Monogram and PRC genre movies made during the same period. There's a few unique ideas scattered among the four films in the set, but they are not given the proper development. Republic just wasn't the studio for the type of material dealt with in movies like THE PHANTOM SPEAKS. 


Wednesday, June 5, 2024

THE CATMAN OF PARIS

 







THE CATMAN OF PARIS (1946) is included on Kino's REPUBLIC PICTURES HORROR COLLECTION Blu-ray set. I plan on eventually writing a blog on the overall set, but as of right now I'm just going to focus on this particular movie, one I had never seen before. 

The most notable thing about THE CATMAN OF PARIS is how much it reminds the viewer of other 1940s horror films, such as THE WOLF MAN, CAT PEOPLE, the Spencer Tracy DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, THE LODGER, and HANGOVER SQUARE. CATMAN, however, is nowhere near in the same league as the pictures it tries to imitate. 

In 1895 Paris, writer Charles Regnier (Carl Esmond) has gained a reputation for authoring a book criticizing the French justice system. Regnier also suffers from periodic headaches and blackouts, and he can't remember what has happened to him when he regains his senses. A killer referred to as The Catman has been terrorizing the city, and Regnier fears that he may be the culprit. The police suspect the writer as well, but his love interest Marie (Lenore Aubert) stands by him. The final revelation of The Catman's true identity also establishes the killer's supernatural powers. 

THE CATMAN OF PARIS is a slow-moving tale, and whatever qualities it might have had are ruined by Lesley Selander's lackluster direction. When it came to low-budget horror pictures, Republic was no Universal--the latter studio would have put something into the production to generate some sort of interest. 

The story's setting isn't taken advantage of (other than Lenore Aubert, no one in the cast comes off as even remotely Parisian). There is a can-can sequence, but it's presented in a dull fashion and goes on too long. There's also a cafe brawl and a carriage chase--it's as if because this is a Republic movie there had to be some cowboy elements in it. 

The cafe brawl has Charles beat up four louts who think he is The Catman--a rather unlikely premise, considering that the man is supposed to be an esteemed writer. What makes it even more unlikely is that Carl Esmond isn't very charismatic as Charles. Because Charles is the leading man, and all the main evidence points directly to him, you know he just can't be the killer. When the killer is revealed, the viewer realizes that a different actor played The Catman than the one who is found out to be guilty--a huge cheat, in my opinion. (The Catman, in his cloak, fancy dress, and top hat, is a striking figure, but like just about everything else in this film, he's not used properly.) 

Something else about The Catman is revealed at the end--the creature apparently has been reincarnated over and over again throughout the centuries, and he has the ability to control a person's mind and actions! (One wonders, with those types of powers, why is he wasting his time being a serial killer? And why does it only take one bullet to stop him?)

The supporting cast has standbys like Douglas Dumbrille and Gerald Mohr. On the female side Lenore Aubert and Adele Mara look great in their 19th Century costumes, but they don't have much to do (Mara gets killed off very shortly after her first scene). Aubert had a much greater chance to make an impression in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. 

THE CATMAN OF PARIS has been released on Blu-ray before, but it belongs in a set with multiple movies--I don't think it's worth getting on its own.  

Sunday, June 2, 2024

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES On Blu-ray From Radiance

 









About ten years ago, Kino Lorber came out with a special edition of one of my favorite movies, Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. I thought so much of this release that I believe I even put it on my Top 5 Blu-rays of the Year list. 

So why did I buy PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES on Blu-ray again?? 

A British company called Radiance Films has now released this movie on a Region Free disc, with plenty of extras. The main reason to get this disc is that it contains the Italian version of the film, with an Italian voice track (along with English subtitles). 

The Italian version of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is about a minute or so longer than the American cut, but from my point of view there are no major significant differences. The dialogue is also basically the same between the two versions. The Italian version has different beginning and end titles. 

Radiance states that this release features a 4K scan from the original negative, and it was supervised by Lamberto Bava, Mario's son (and assistant director on the actual film). The colors on the Italian version are a bit deeper, and the sound design comes off a bit bolder at times. From my perspective, the Italian version looks a bit better than the American cut, but both versions now have excellent picture & sound quality. 

The many extras on this disc include a 41 minute featurette called "Transmissions From A Haunted World", in which various genre aficionados discuss the film, and how it blends Gothic and science fiction elements. It's a decent look at Bava's career up to the point of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, and the film itself, although it rambles at times. (I must admit I was not familiar with any of the main speakers on this program.)

There is also a 13 minute interview with Lamberto Bava, who goes out of his way to state that the DP on the film, Antonio Rinaldi, truly was in charge of the camerawork. He also mentions that his grandfather (and Mario Bava's father) Eugenio created the spacecraft model used for the movie. 

A "reconstruction" of the Super 8 version of the film is also here (this is essentially just a 17 minute cut of the story). There's also a couple of "Trailers From Hell" programs featuring Joe Dante and Josh Olsen, along with a photo gallery and the film's original American trailer. Tim Lucas' excellent audio commentary from the 2014 Blu-ray release is carried over here, and on the American cut of the film, one can choose to listen to a music score by Kendall Schmidt, which was created for a VHS release. (The original music score by Gino Marinuzzi is much more effective.)

The disc sleeve has reversible artwork on each side, and included in the disc case are six postcards, each with images of various posters for the film. There's also a booklet that contains the entire short story that PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES was based on--"One Night of 21 Hours". The story is translated into English. 

And...(if that isn't enough)....there's an 80 page illustrated booklet, that has five different essays on the film, along with cast, crew, and disc credits. The essays are interesting, but once again I have to admit I was unfamiliar with the writers who penned them. (One thing that all the extras seem obligated to mention is that ALIEN has a lot in common with PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.) The disc case and the booklet come in a special sleeve with new artwork. 

This is a very impressive package, and if you are a super fan of this film (as I am), you'll want to pick this up, even if you already have it on Blu-ray. I must point out that the extras lack the heavy-hitter names film geeks expect to encounter on these types of special releases, but there's plenty to dive into here. 

 

Saturday, June 1, 2024

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK On Blu-ray From Kino

 








THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958) is included in a three-film Blu-ray set from Kino entitled SCI-FI CHILLERS. The black & white movie produced by Paramount involves many genre veterans: Otto Kruger (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER), Robert Hutton (THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE), Ross Martin (THE WILD, WILD WEST), Charles Herbert (THE FLY), producer William Alland (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and director Eugene Lourie (GORGO). 

After returning from Europe, where he was awarded an international peace prize, brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin) is killed in a traffic accident. His father (Otto Kruger), who happens to be a brilliant surgeon, removes Jeremy's brain and keeps it alive, and then goads his other son, another brilliant scientist named Henry (John Baragrey) into building a giant metallic humanoid body to house the organ. The plan works--but while Jeremy is still "alive", he's also cut off from all humanity, including his wife (Mala Powers) and his young son (Charles Herbert), who think he is still dead. As Jeremy's anger at his situation increases, so does his power--and his father and brother find themselves unable to stop him. 

I had never seen THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK before. The story has a number of intriguing ideas and concepts, but it doesn't fully explore them. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know I'm always complaining about movies being too long. This is an example of a movie being too short. At only 70 minutes, there's not enough time to explore all the elements the scenario presents. We are just introduced to Jeremy's character before he's killed right off the bat, and before we can find out for ourselves how brilliant a scientist he supposedly is. While in his robotic body, Jeremy begins to develop all sorts of fantastic powers, but there's no real explanation why he's suddenly able to do these things. The ending is supposed to be a slam-bang climax at the United Nations, but it comes off as haphazard and underwhelming, negating any feeling the audience may have for Jeremy and his plight (the film's low budget is very much in evidence during this sequence). 

The movie treads very heavily into DONOVAN'S BRAIN and FRANKENSTEIN territory--at one point we see Jeremy's brain in a tank, hooked up to all sorts of equipment, and Otto Kruger's statements about how wasteful it is to have genius brains tied to fragile bodies sound exactly like the type of dialogue Peter Cushing would intone during his time as the Baron in the Hammer Frankenstein series. 

The appearance of The Colossus is quite striking (see picture below). But why would Henry and his father build such a clunky, outlandish contraption for Jeremy's brain to reside in? There's a subplot that has Henry jealous over Jeremy, and desirous of his widow. One wonders if Henry made such a creation to assure that his brother would be distraught over his condition--but why, then, did he give Jeremy the power and capability to destroy anyone he wanted, including Henry?? (Robert Hutton plays Jeremy's best friend, who also has feelings for the widow, but this is another element that isn't fully developed.) 

My verdict on THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK is that it needed a longer running time and a bigger budget. Every science-fiction movie produced by William Alland does feature thought-provoking concepts, and this one does as well, but more should have been made out of them. The film does provide a showcase for Ross Martin's voice talents as the "re-born" Jeremy. 

Kino's release of THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK has excellent picture and sound quality, and its original trailer is included. It has a brand new audio commentary with Tom Weaver, who brings his usual unique attitude to the proceedings. Weaver gives a lot of attention to the original script for the film, and he allows Larry Blamire to offer up a few comments. Another guest star on the commentary is Ron Adams, the man behind the annual Monster Bash Conference held in western Pennsylvania (an event at which I'm a regular attendee). Charles Herbert was a special guest at Monster Bash multiple times, and Adams, who got to know the former actor, provides info about the man's life and personal troubles (like a lot of child performers, Herbert had problems as he got older). 

There's also what is called a "sidebar"--an hour-long discussion on the film with Tim Lucas and Stephen R. Bissette. The duo talk about various aspects of the production. It's a fun program, and I like the idea of these sidebars, which Kino is also presenting in their Republic Pictures Horror Collection. I believe this format allows the participants a chance to loosen up and not be constrained by the actual film, as they would be on a commentary. 

Kino's SCI-FI CHILLERS set also has THE UNKNOWN TERROR and DESTINATION INNER SPACE. These, along with THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, are not the greatest sci-fi movies in the world, but it's to Kino's credit that they have released them with special extras. 



Charles Herbert and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK



Monday, May 27, 2024

THE GREENE MURDER CASE On Blu-ray From Kino

 








The second film on Kino's PHILO VANCE COLLECTION Blu-ray is THE GREENE MURDER CASE, made in 1929. 

THE GREENE MURDER CASE was the third Vance novel written by S. S. Van Dine (I have not read this one). The film adaptation is a combination of an old dark house thriller and a serial killer case. The Greene family, forced to live in a large rambling manor due to the conditions of their patriarch's will, is being killed off one-by-one. Upper-class amateur sleuth Philo Vance takes an interest in the proceedings. 

THE GREENE MURDER CASE (directed by Frank Tuttle) is much more stylish and energetic than THE CANARY MURDER CASE. There's a lot more murders (and murder attempts), and there is more vitality to the camerawork and the editing. The identity of the killer is easy to figure out, mainly due to the fact that nearly all the members of the Greene family wind up dead, and there's only a couple left to choose from. The interiors (and exteriors) of the Greene mansion are very impressive, and the movie has a literally hanging on by the fingernails climax. 

William Powell appears more natural and relaxed than he did in THE CANARY MURDER CASE. Eugene Pallette also returns as Sergeant Heath. Jean Arthur also returns from the first Vance film, this time playing a different character. Arthur is the prim and somewhat looked-down-upon young daughter of the Greene clan, and not only does she get more screen time, she gets a far more challenging role. The actors playing the rest of the Greene family don't get much of a chance to make an impression, simply because they get killed off so quickly. Florence Eldridge (the future wife of Fredric March) does stand out as Jean Arthur's catty, sarcastic sister. Old Movie geeks will recognize Brandon Hurst as the Greene's butler. 

The visual and sound quality on THE GREENE MURDER CASE is excellent--it feels as if this movie was made later than 1929. Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw return for another well-done audio commentary. The duo discuss how much better overall the second Vance film is to the first, and why the character of Vance has not had the fame of other literary detectives in modern times. They also briefly talk about Jean Arthur's life and acting career. 

THE GREENE MURDER CASE is a very good early talkie mystery from Paramount. It's also quite vicious for its time, despite the fact that most of the killings take place off screen. The madness of the killer and the amount of deaths in this story makes it feel as if it could have been made decades later. There's one more film on this Vance set--THE BENSON MURDER CASE--and I'll be writing about that one soon. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

THE SQUEEZE (1978)

 








There have been a number of films titled THE SQUEEZE. This one is an Italian-German co-production, made in 1978 and filmed mostly in America. The movie was directed by the prolific Antonio Margheriti, under his pen name Anthony M. Dawson. 

Lee Van Cleef plays Chris Gretchko, an expert safe cracker who has retired and now lives in seclusion on a ranch in Mexico. The son of one of Chris' former partners, a young man named Jeff (Edward Albert), tracks him down and convinces him to take part in one last score. The job consists of robbing a safe full of diamonds located in a New York City warehouse. Chris has suspicions about the deal, and has Jeff set up a place for him to hide out in for a few weeks. Chris also convinces Jeff to get himself arrested for a minor crime in order to be safe in jail while the heist is going on. The heist goes wrong, and while Chris gets away with the diamonds, he's shot in the leg. Chris makes it to the prepared hideout, but he learns once again that when it comes to the criminal lifestyle, absolutely no one can be trusted. 

THE SQUEEZE (which also has several other titles) has a number of plot elements familiar to anyone who has seen plenty of movies and TV shows. Lee Van Cleef is the grizzled, veteran con who has the smarts and know-how to recognize and stay out of trouble, while his younger partner/friend is more emotional and hotheaded. Despite all the precautions and pre-planning, the heist goes badly. (Has there ever been a heist movie where the job goes perfectly, and there are no repercussions??) Van Cleef is an independent con who has his own sense of honor, and he winds up dealing with major criminals who are far more dangerous and deadly than he is. These well-known elements are presented efficiently, but there's nothing really notable about them. 

As a matter of fact, for most of the running time I thought this movie was a bit underwhelming--that is, until the climax, which throws up a couple of double-crosses that I was totally unprepared for. The ending redeems the movie from being a slow-moving but predictable crime drama. 

Lee Van Cleef gets a great role as the no-nonsense Chris. He's backed by a better-than-usual cast for this type of feature, with Edward Albert, Lionel Stander as an old buddy of Chris', Robert Alda as a police inspector, and Karen Black, who makes a major impact in the second half of the film as the kooky woman living next door to Chris' apartment hideout. 

THE SQUEEZE was mostly filmed at New York City and New Jersey locations, and the types of sites used are not the ones familiar to viewers of 1970s productions. The story also takes place in the middle of winter, and because of the weather and the locations THE SQUEEZE has a grittier, more realistic look and tone. The only major action sequence is after the heist, where a car runs into a train causing explosions that ignite a nearby oil facility. (It appears that Antonio Margheriti used stock footage from other films to make this sequence even more explosive.) 

The best thing about THE SQUEEZE is the last part of it, but Lee Van Cleef makes the entire film watchable. One thing you can take from THE SQUEEZE is that sometimes it pays to stick with a movie that you might find not all that impressive. 



Saturday, May 25, 2024

THE CANARY MURDER CASE On Blu-ray From Kino

 








Kino Lorber has released on a single Blu-ray disc all three of the Philo Vance movies William Powell starred in for Paramount during the early sound era of Hollywood. Today I'll be discussing the first film made and released of the group, 1929's THE CANARY MURDER CASE. 

THE CANARY MURDER CASE was the first Philo Vance film, but it was actually the second Philo Vance novel written by S.S. Van Dine, the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright. The Vance novels were major sellers in America during the 1920s and 30s, despite the fact that the title character is an elitist snob (more about the literary Vance later). 

I assume Paramount chose THE CANARY MURDER CASE as the debut Vance film because the murder victim is a glamorous stage entertainer named Margaret O'Dell, also referred to as "The Canary". This conniving young woman is blackmailing a number of jealous suitors, and she winds up strangled. The upper-class fashionable Philo Vance (William Powell) takes an interest in the case, due to being a friend of one of the suspects. Vance takes the unusual step of having all of the suspects take part in a poker game with him, the better to figure out which one had the psychology to commit the deed. Even this doesn't seem to solve the case, until the wily Vance makes a major discovery. 

THE CANARY MURDER CASE was originally produced as a silent feature, directed by Malcolm St. Clair. The film was mostly re-shot as a sound picture, under the supervision of an uncredited Frank Tuttle. The result is that the movie is disjointed at times, with some clunky and creaky elements. The legendary Louise Brooks played the Canary, but after her scenes were filmed she took off to Europe, and refused to go back and redo her part for sound. Margaret Livingstone wound up dubbing Brooks, and even replacing her as a body double for some scenes (when one watches this film it's obvious Paramount went to a lot of trouble to make Brooks' time on screen come out efficiently). For years the most famous thing about THE CANARY MURDER CASE was the promotional photos that Louise Brooks posed for it. 



Louise Brooks as The Canary

Brooks only appears at the very beginning of the feature. The rest of the film deals with the investigation of her character's death. William Powell is, as one expects, a dapper and urbane Vance, although here he seems to be trying to get used to being in a talkie. Powell's Vance is much more personable and less egotistical than the literary one. The movie is enlivened by a number of fine supporting actors, such as Lawrence Grant, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ned Sparks, and Eugene Pallette, who plays Sergeant Heath (this character would in the later Vance films be a sort of Lestrade to Vance's Holmes). Jean Arthur is also in this film, but she has little to do, and she doesn't even get to share a scene with Louise Brooks. 

After I pre-ordered Kino's Philo Vance Collection, I bought the first two of the Vance novels at a very low price. This means that I have actually read THE CANARY MURDER CASE. The movie keeps close to the book for the most part, but it enlarges the Canary's role--in the novel she first appears as a corpse. The movie also changes the identity of the murderer, which must have been a major surprise to viewers who had read the book, which according to internet sources was a best-seller. (I have a theory about why the movie has a different murderer, but if I share it I'll give away the climax of both movie and book.) One thing I realized reading the first two Vance novels is how unlikable the main character is. He's snotty and intellectual, and he knows it. He's a rich guy who has never worked a day in his life, and the reason he involves himself in murder cases is that he can prove how brilliant he is (he doesn't have any real interest in justice, or the personal problems of the victims or suspects). There's nothing all that dynamic or intriguing about Vance's eccentricities, and it's no wonder that the character as a literary figure is all but forgotten today. 



The picture quality of THE CANARY MURDER CASE on this Blu-ray is very good. The sound quality is decent enough, but there are times the dialogue is not easy to make out. One does have to realize that this was an early talkie, and the audio technology was still being mastered. The aspect ratio is the original 1.20:1. This is a Region A disc. 

The film has a brand new audio commentary featuring Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. It's a good one, with the duo covering a wide variety of topics including the history of American crime fiction, the background and personal life of S.S. Van Dine, and the movie's unusual production history. 

THE CANARY MURDER CASE has been notable due to Louise Brooks' involvement in it, but now film & murder mystery genre geeks get a chance to actually see it. It's important as the first Philo Vance film, and it's great that Kino put all of the first Vance features onto a Blu-ray disc. I'll be writing blog posts on the other two films in the collection soon. 

Sunday, May 19, 2024

MUTINY IN OUTER SPACE

 








This is another Tubi discovery, a very low-budget 1960s sci-fi film that I had never heard of. It was written & directed by Hugo Grimaldi & Arthur C. Pierce, and executive produced by the Woolner Brothers. (Grimaldi, Pierce, and the Woolners were involved in plenty of cheap sci-fi/horror flicks.) 

Sometime in the far-off future of the 1990s, a Major Towers (William Leslie) and his young associate travel from the Moon to Space Station X-7. The two men are bringing back precious minerals from the Moon to Earth, but they are also inadvertently bringing back an unknown deadly fungus. The fungus starts to grow all over the station, while Leslie tries to find a way to stop it. Making matters worse is the commander of the station, a Colonel Cromwell (Richard Garland). The Colonel is starting to lose his grip on reality, and he and the Major butt heads. 

MUTINY IN OUTER SPACE was originally released in 1965, but it feels as if it was made 10 years earlier. The movie is in black & white, it has a full-frame aspect ratio, and its budget appears less than the average episode of LOST IN SPACE. The special effects are mediocre, and the direction is lackluster. Most of the movie takes place on the space station, and its interior design is sparse and generic. There's also the fact that while the station is supposed to be quite large, it appears to be crewed by about five people. 

The no-name cast doesn't help either. William Leslie does a decent job as the square-jawed hero, but it's the type of role someone like Kenneth Tobey would have made much more of. The most notable names in the film are Harold Lloyd Jr. (son of the famed silent movie legend) and 1960s American TV veteran Francine York. The actors are not helped by the cardboard characterizations. The story does have the main female cast members as officers of the space agency overseeing things, but the women still don't have much to do other than serve as romantic interests for the men, scream at the creeping fungi, and look worried. 

As for the mutiny referred to in the title, it doesn't amount to much. The creeping fungi does generate some suspense, but the production values are not enough to help out the better aspects of the script. 

While watching MUTINY IN OUTER SPACE I kept thinking about Roger Corman--and not just because he passed away recently. Corman made plenty of movies like this film--but one way or another, he always figured out a way to make those features memorable. MUTINY IN OUTER SPACE really needed a Roger Corman, or a Mario Bava or a Antonio Margheriti. 

Saturday, May 18, 2024

ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE

 







ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE, a documentary from Severin Films, is a fun, fast-paced look at one of the weirdest and wildest cinematic sub-genres. 

One of the saddest things about Bruce Lee's shocking death in 1973 was that it happened right when the martial arts master was on the verge of becoming a global pop icon due to the release of ENTER THE DRAGON. The Kung Fu craze of the Seventies caused a number of Asian production companies to seek out a "new" Bruce Lee, and the result was a spate of films starring a group of martial artists who were given new names and identities, in an attempt to convince audiences that they were the Dragon, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. 

ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE, directed by David Gregory, examines these "Bruceploitation" pictures, and the people and performers behind them. The film gives background on the Hong Kong film industry, and the reasons why so many producers tried to fool people into thinking they were presenting new, unseen Bruce Lee features. What is particularly notable about this documentary is that it has new interviews with some of the men who were tasked to take on the mantle of Bruce Lee--men called Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang, and Dragon Lee. 

The documentary makes clear that these so-called clones of Bruce were not just mindless props--they were men who had dreams and aspirations of their own, men who were also trained martial artists. They weren't trying to dishonor Bruce Lee's legacy--they were trying to make a living in a very chaotic industry. 

Just how chaotic the Asian film industry was is shown by the many clips used from various Bruceploitation features. Only a few of these scenes are enough to make one realize how outrageous and how outlandish this sub-genre was. These movies were cranked out at an astonishing rapidity--the Asian film industry was much more interested in quantity rather than quality. 

This film also has plenty of rare behind-the-scenes footage, along with new interviews with such kung fu movie cult stars as Angela Mao, David Chiang, and Sammo Hung. 

ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE doesn't try to make the case that Bruceploitation flicks were an example of cinematic art. But it also doesn't go out of its way to denigrate the sub-genre either. It accepts it and presents it for what it is. Despite all the craziness and goofiness involved in these movies, the fact that so many of them were made--and so many different "Bruces" starred in them--means they must have made some sort of impact. 

I highly enjoyed watching ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE...but more importantly, I learned plenty about a section of film history that I previously had almost no knowledge of. The best documentaries inform, entertain, and cause one to want to learn more about the subject, and this one certainly does. Severin and David Gregory have released another great product for film geeks everywhere. 



Saturday, May 11, 2024

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU On Blu-ray From Warner Archive

 








The Warner Archive unleashes on Blu-ray one of the wildest, wickedest Pre-Code thrillers--the 1932 MGM production of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. 

During the heady days of classic Hollywood, MGM was considered the studio of class and distinction, but in the early 1930s they made some of the more outlandish horror films of the era, such as FREAKS, MAD LOVE, and this film. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU is so off-the-wall and crazy it makes the Sax Rohmer novels written about the title character seem tame by comparison. 

One thing about THE MASK OF FU MANCHU: MGM didn't skimp on any of the tawdry details. The sets, the costumes, and the expressive photography are a sight to behold (the production design can best be described as art deco on opium). One can only imagine how fantastic this movie would have looked in color. 

MGM took advantage of Boris Karloff's newfound horror popularity by giving him the title role. The actor himself thought the whole thing to be ridiculous, so he pitched his performance to the material. The result is that Boris is--dare I say it--almost Lugosi-esque here. Karloff really lets it rip, and the movie is all the more enjoyable for that. Boris is matched in his mad ravings by Myrna Loy as his sinfully slinky daughter. The supporting cast includes Lewis Stone as Fu's nemesis, the very stalwart Dennis Nayland Smith, Jean Hersholt, and a hysterical Karen Morley. 

The movie's production history was as outlandish as the picture itself, with multiple directors, script problems, and censorship issues. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU has gone down in history as one of the most politically incorrect movies ever made by a major American studio, due to its East vs. West racial themes, but the film is so absurdly fantastic that there's no point in trying to take it seriously. 

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU was released on DVD in 2006 by Warners as part of a box set devoted to early 1930s horror classics. That version was uncut, but the edited scenes that were restored had a very noticeable difference in picture and sound quality. This new Blu-ray also has the uncut version, and the once-edited scenes have a better quality to them, and their appearance is not as abrupt. Overall, the visual & sound quality is fantastic--this disc really shows off the exotic splendor MGM put in the project. 

On this Blu-ray, before the film starts, a text statement is shown explaining that this movie is a product of its time, and it may be offensive to some, etc. I understand why Warners felt the need to do this, but I'm sure anyone who would be offended by this film would never see it in the first place, and certainly wouldn't buy it on Blu-ray. 

This disc carries over the audio commentary by Greg Mank that was on the earlier DVD of the film. Greg's talk is fun and fast-paced, and despite having only 68 minutes to do so, he provides all the info, context, and background on what is a very unusual and complicated production. There's also a couple of early 30s Merrie Melodies cartoons (considering the bizarre nature of the film, a couple of Looney Tunes would have been more fitting). 

You can't get any more Pre-Code than THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. Boris Karloff gives one of his most lip-smacking portrayals as the fiendish Fu, and Myrna Loy is truly a dragon lady you're going to die for. This movie certainly isn't for the faint of heart. If you're looking for something that promotes peace, international brotherhood, and understanding, this ain't it.....but if you want a wild, wacky, and provocative ride, this Blu-ray of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU is for you.