Thursday, May 6, 2010

'Terror in the Tropics' isn't what I wished

Terror in the Tropics (2005)
Starring: Mark Redfield, Jennifer Rouse, Jonathan Ruckman, Wayne Shipley, Kimberly Hannold, and Bela Lugosi
Director: A. Susan Svehla
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of strangers are summoned to the reading of a will that names them as beneficiaries of a multi-million dollar estate. The trip is dangerous to all, not just because of the murderer and thief hiding in their midst, but because the insane Tesla Brothers (Redfield and Lugosi) await at their destination with murderous intent.

I really, really wanted to like this movie. The idea sounded excellent--taking scenes from Poverty Row movies of the 1930s and 1940s and incorporating them into a new movie by shooting scenes with modern actors. I still think it's an excellent idea... I just think Svehla and the fine folks at Midnight Marquee failed to execute it properly.

The biggest problem with the film is the story, or, more accurately, the stories.

There are two distinct stories here, and they are completely unrelated... we have a thief who stole the real map to Skull Island (King Kong's home) and who launched a failed expedition to it, and then we have the will-reading storyline. Both also feature unnecessarily subplots and characters... the Skull Island story treats us to a unnecessary (and, in context, utterly illogical) flashback to the failed expedition, and the will-reading story sees the shoehorning of a the archetypal fiery girl-reporter and sexist photographer into the going-ons. If the filmmakers had focused EITHER on the Skull Island/detective storyline OR the will-reading/evil Tesla Brothers storyline, the end product would have been far better.

(The filmmakers seemed to have recognized this problem as some point, and they write out a trio of characters in a lame fashion at about the 3/4 mark.)

Another problem is with the actors. For the most part, they aren't bad. They are about what I'd expect in a production like this... if it hadn't been billed as a tribute to the low-budget films of the 30s and 40s.

There's no sign that ANY of the actors here bothered taking the time to examine how actors of that time performed the characters they were playing. I saw no sign that any of the performers were making any attempt to bring the sort of energy to their parts that just about EVERYONE displayed in the films back then... and that includes the two actors who came closest to feeling like they belonged in a Monogram Picture--Jonathan Ruckman (who was playing the typical dishwater love interest) and Mark Redfield.

Then there's the new footage. The incompatibility of the acting styles aside, a number of bad decisions were made when the new footage was filmed. Prime among these was the string of cheap plastic party flags featured prominently on the ship-board set. On the flip-side, however, the first scene with the city editor was very impressive in its use of green-screens. (Later, when a ballroom scene uses similar tricking-in of backgrounds, it's badly done... but old-time office that wasn't actually there looked GREAT.)

Finally, there's the film's main selling point... the re-use of Lugosi, Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. footage in new and fun ways. Observant readers may already have noticed that when I listed the stars of the film, I didn't mention Karloff and Chaney, even though they're listed on the DVD case. Well, that's because Karloff is featured in some "Mr. Wong" footage that's incorporated in a very awkward and gratuitous fashion--and the Chaney is featured only in some bits taken from "The Indestructible Man" and it's almost as pointless as the Karloff bits.

Lugosi is used very cleverly in the picture, and his "new" character of Vitus Tesla is incorporated quite nicely. The footage from "The Devil Bat" and "The Invisible Ghost" is put to good and fun use. It's a glimpse into what the entire film could have been like if perhaps the filmmakers had chosen to focus a bit more on story rather than trying to cram as many different B-movie elements as possible into one film with a running-time of just above one hour.

I also contend that the film has too much new footage and not enough old. There's also too many instances of the same bit being used more than once, given how little old material is actually incorporated. More thought and time should have been devoted to using and incorporating the archive footage.

For all my complaining, I do want to mention that the filmmakers did blend old and new footage in a very impressive way during the film's climax as the hero attempts to get his hapless new girlfriend (Hannold) safely away from the Tesla Brothers. If the rest of the film had been this good, you'd be seeing a Fresh Rating instead of the measly Three Tomatoes I've giving it now.

I can't really recommend the film "Terror in the Tropics", and the rating I'm giving it probably on the generous side... a reflection of what I hoped it would be rather than what it is. There is a mostly botched attempt at creating movie in the spirit of the old Monogram and PRC films, but I can't help but appreciate the attempt.

However, while I can't recommend the DVD for the "Terror in the Tropics" film, I can recommend it for the extras. There's a very interesting lecture by an expert on the Poverty Row studios about why great actors like George Zucco, John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi did so much work for them.

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