Friday, March 27, 2009

Karloff is up to more than
monkey business in "The Ape"

The Ape (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gertrude W. Hoffman and Henry Hall
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Disgraced medical researcher turned small town doctor Bernard Adrian (Karloff) has devoted his life to curing the illness that claimed the life of his wife and daughter, and which paralyzed the beautiful young Frances Clifford (Wrixon). After an gorilla from a traveling circus escapes and mauls his keeper, Adrian uses spinal fluid from the dead carnie to devise a treatment for Frances... and her paralysis starts to wane. However, Adrian needs more spinal fluid to complete the cure. If only that ape was around to kill a few more people so he could drain their spines....


"The Ape" is a film that's carried almost entirely by Boris Karloff, with a tiny bit of help from Wrixon and Hoffman (as his creepy, but devoted, house-keeper). Every other actor is fairly bad, and evey other character is fairly obnoxious and unlikable (except for Henry Hall, who, as the town sheriff is likable enough, but seemingly devoid of acting talent).

Karloff's character is likable and the viewer feels sympathy for him, despite the murderous extremes he goes to in order to find the cure he seeks. He's an underachiever in the mad scientist department, as he is actually motivated on every level by selfless and worthy goals and he's more than willing to work with the medical establishment. He's just a teensy-weensy bit morally challenged.

The biggest flaw with "The Ape", aside from the bad acting by the majority of the supporting players, is the ape. It's another instance of an actor in a laughably bad gorilla suit--hell, it's probably the SAME bad gorilla suit that's been in other films by Monogram Pictures!

On the up side, I've already mentioned Karloff's performance as a character who is both sympathetic and repulsive. Script-wise, the film is blessed with some decent dialogue (even if it's butchered by most of the actors) and it presents a small town where not everyone are closeminded jackasses--even if the majority are--and also a slightly more modern structure than many pictures of the period--it gives us a denoument after the main action is complete.

"The Ape" isn't Karloff's best picture, but it's worth seeing nonetheless. Dr. Adrian may be an underacheiver as far as mad scientists go, but he's one of the more appealing of the bunch.




Wednesday, March 25, 2009

'The Last Mile' is one to avoid

The Last Mile (1932)
Starring: Howard Phillips, Preston Foster, Alec Francis and Albert Smith
Director: Samuel Bischoff
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Dick Walters (Phillips) is wrongly convicted of murdering his business partner and just before his execution, he is caught up in a death-house uprising led by "Killer" Mears (Foster). Will Walters survive long enough to learn that he's received a last minute stay of execution?


"The Last Mile" is one of those movies that puts the drama in melodrama. Overacted in every conceivable way and showing its roots as a stage play so obviously one wonders why they credited a screenwriter at all, it moves along slowly and predictably. The film also never misses an opportunity to flog its anti-death penalty message, although one wonders why any of the writers thought Mears would make a good spokes-character for the inhumanity of capital punishment. If anything, he's an argument for taking murderers straight from the courthouse to a gas chamber.

I imagine dedicated opponents of capital punishment might find this film a good reaffirmation of their faith, if they can tolerate over-the-top acting from just about the entire cast. As for me, I just found it dull and a little of the mark.



Sunday, March 22, 2009

Witness the Rebirth of Superheroes

Showcase Presents: The Flash, Vol. 1
Writers: John Broome and Robert Kanigher
Artists: Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Joe Giaccioa, and Joe Kubert
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Comic book historians mark the publication of "Showcase #4", an issue that took a superhero whose series ("Flash Comics") had been cancelled in 1954 as the beginning of the 'Silver Age." It's a perfect demarcation line, and the stories collected in "Showcase Presents: The Flash, Vol 1" show why this was the source of revitalization for the superhero genre:

The 500+ pages of comics in this book are not only superior to anything that was being published in the superhero genre at the time (the "Superman" and "Batman" tales from the 1950s and 1960s are awful when compared to the "Flash" tales in this book), but most of them remain fun reading to this day.

It's a book that any lover of comics needs to own, and this goes double if you fancy yourself a student of the genre.

"Showcase Presents: The Flash" starts with the very last Golden Age story, and then moves onto introduce Barry Allen, a police scientist who gains super-speed as a result of a freak accident. These first few stories are written by master-scribe Robert Kanigher, but the bulk of the book is by John Broome, and he laid down a foundation that would carry the Flash for three decades until the title was cancelled during DC's big 1984 "universe revamp" "Crisis on Infinite Earth."


While a minority of the stories seem overly goofy when viewed with jaded 21st century eyes--like the one where Flash gets turned into a 600-pound fat guy, for example--the vast majority of the stories remain highly entertaining flights of pseudo-scientific fancy. The effective use of time-travel and alternative dimensions also add a flavor to these Flash adventures that can't be found anywhere else in comics of the time.

These early stories also introduce some of the greatest comic villains to ever grace four-colored newsprint, and their "wonderful toys". Like Barry Allen himself, these villains stood as some of the greatest characters in DC's stable... like Captain Boomerrang, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Trickster, professional criminals all who had great gadgets, quirky personalities, and who were great foils for the fastest man alive. Lesser villains like Gorilla Grodd and Mister Alchemy also have their first appearances here. (In fact, the only major Flash villains who don't make their first appearance in this book are Heatwave, Golden Glider, the Top, and Reverse Flash... although the foundation for the latter is set here with the various time travel stories.

In addition to the introduction of the Flash and the villains that will soon become known as the Rogues Gallery, the book also presents the first appearance and origin of Ralph Dibney, the Elongated Man, and Wally West, the Kid Flash (and future inheritor of the Flash mantle).

Another joy to be had from reading this book is that the art is 100% Carmine Infantino pencils. Infantino was THE Flash artist--only Irv Novick came close to matching is greatness where this character and his world and supporting cast is concerned--and this book shows that he hit the ground running along side the Scarlet Speedester. (Infantino is one of the most underappreciated American comic book creators. It's a shame he doesn't get more praise and recognition.)

The only real weak point of the book can be found in the first 40 or so pages, and it's one that surprised me. For the first few tales, Infantino's pencils are inked by Joe Kubert, an artist as great as Infantino, but with a very different style. I love Kubert's art as much as I love Infantino's work, but when the two are combined, the result is less than stellar. In fact, I doubt I would have enjoyed this book as much as I did if the teaming had lasted for longer than the material that originally appeared in "Showcase" #4.

It just goes to show that sometimes two great flavors DON'T go great together.

Once that shakey start is behind us, however, we're treated to 500 pages of true, timeless comic book classics. If you love superhero comics, you can't help but love "Showcase Presents: The Flash, Vol. 1".

'Prison Shadows' done in by weak script

Prison Shadows (1936)
Starring: Edward Nugent, Joan Barclay, Lucille Lund,and Syd Saylor
Director: Robert Hill
Rating: Four of Ten Stars


When boxer Gene Harris (Nugent) kills two men in the ring in two fights seperated by a three-year manslaughter stint in the clink, his trainer (Saylor) smells a rat and tries to investigate.

That's not the best summary of "Prison Shadows", but a more detailed one would give away too much of the plot. Unfortunately, that plot is one that will barely make sense to even the most attentive viewer. It's not that it's overly complicated... it's just that it's dumb, with bad guys that are even dumber. (And they're not dumb for comedy... they're just dumb.)

And speaking of dumb. I think the character Gene has got to be one of the most frustrating characters I've ever experienced in a film. The level of obliviousness he shows to the affection that Good Girl Mary Comstock (Barclay) has for him while he carries his torch for Femme Fatale Clair Thomas (Lund) is maddening.I usually don't mind romantic subplots, but this one bugged the heck out of me.

It's a shame the script for this film is so awful, because all the actors are good in their parts--Nugent is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, but I may feel that way due to his bone-headed character more than anything. He wasn't exactly bad... he was just "blah" when compared to everyone else.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's Spy vs Spy in this Karloff-starring WW2 propaganda film

British Intelligence (aka "Enemy Agent")(1940)
Starring: Margaret Lindsay, Boris Karloff, and Holmes Herbert
Director: Terry Morse
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

It's World War I. The German high command dispatches the beautiful master-spy Helene (Lindsay) to London to help the legendary German agent Strengler infiltrate of the very highest levels of the British war ministry. But British Intelligence have uncovered Strengler's ring, and they've inserted a double-agent into it. But which of the German spies is truly loyal to Britain? The milkman? The minister's secretary? Or maybe this is a case where the butler (Karloff) truly can't be trusted? Who will carry the day in the game of spy vs. spy double-crosses?



"British Intelligence" is a nice little spy movie with healthy doses of World War II propaganda. Despite its outdated political messages, the film is still fun to watch today for anyone who enjoys spy movies.

The film offers of a steady stream of plot twists and turns as British and German agents and double-agents try to trap and outwit each other. It is is well directed, with fine acting, great lighting and camera work, and no padding whatsoever. The final chase scene through the streets of London as it is being bombed by German zeppelins is very tense and expertly executed.

And, although we might think that Boris Karloff has GOT to be the mysterious master spy Spengler--he's Boris Karloff and the's got that creepy scar--the film is so well-crafted that it proves us wrong time again. Karloff may be creepy in the film, but is he a hero or a villain? The film will almost be an an end before we know for sure!

On the downside, the film starts to feel a little like a "Spy Vs. Spy" cartoon (from the old "MAD Magazine") toward the end, and the ending that I'm sure must have seemed ironic or poetic to viewers in the 1940s feels EXACTLY like the end of a "Spy Vs. Spy" cartoon.

Still, the film held my interest until the end, and it's a nice little time capsule featuring a tight story and fine performances. It's political message might be dated, but it's still a film that's worth seeing today.



Sunday, March 1, 2009