Friday, July 30, 2010

Nancy Drew turns into a manipulative beech

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas, John Litel, Louise Carter, Vera Lewis and Frank Orth
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Teen detective Nancy Drew (Granville) swings into action when she comes to the conclusion that someone is trying to drive two little old ladies (Carner and Lewis) from their home by terrorizing them. The murder of their driver ups the stakes significantly, particularly since Police Captain Tweedy (Orth) becomes convinced the sisters killed him.


"Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" is the fourth and final mystery film based on the popular juvenile mysteries for girls. Like the previous installments, I have the sense that the characters here aren't behaving at all like the ones in the books--Nancy Drew is supposed to be the living embodiment of charm, poise and self-possession, as well as being so smart and skilled that she can run circles around any adult and take on any challenge in order to solve a mystery and bring culprit's to justice. But that's not at all the character we have here, nor in other three films in the series.

The Nancy Drew in this film succeeds by being manipulative and deceitful... and by having a strange ability to convince her friend Ted (Frankie Thomas) to do anything she asks. Although by the end of this movie, during which she ends up getting Ted humiliated in front of much of the town because he ends up women's clothing, gets him fired from his summer job, and gets him dragged off to jail for evidence tampering, I can only assume that Nancy must be a "friend with benefits" (and she must be REALLY good at delivering those benefits) if he is to continue to put up with her and the trouble she gets him into. Nancy may be having fun and solving crimes, but Ted seems to be the one paying the price.

In fact, by the end of this film, the only thing that will keep Ted out of jail for real is the probable fact that Captain Tweedy (Frank Orth) is so inept that Nancy's father Carson (John Litle) probably has 90% of his practice built around suing him and the police department for defamation of character and wrongful imprisonment and that Ted will walk for that reason alone.

Like "Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter", the film immediately preceding this one in the series, watching it evoked memories of reading juvenile mysteries back when I was a kid. The last half-hour in particular felt very much like the climax of those books. However, if they had plots as simplistic as this--what we have here is essentially a mystery with only one viable suspect--I like to think I wouldn't have enjoyed them as much.

Still, the film's old-fashioned charm, excellent performances by everyone in the cast--with Granville and Thomas being especially good--and an exciting conclusion makes it very fun to watch. (It also provides a window into life in America 70 years ago... a place where icemen delivered ice for literal "ice boxes" in homes, for example. Ted's summer job as an iceman plays a prominent part in the storyline.)



Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Moving Day for Bela and Boris


I'm getting fed up with Chinese spammers, so I severely curtailed the comment features at companion blogs The Bela Lugosi Collection and The Boris Karloff Collection.

If you're interested JUST in reviews of movies with one or both of those great actors, the tightly focused blogs remain intact and you can click on the links to the right to visit them... but you just can't leave comments.

However, since I've already reviewed most of the films featuring Lugosi and/or Karloff, everyone who was going to comment has probably already commented. But, just in case, I've moved reviews of all their black-and-white films to this spot. I am adding a tag that a couple of readers have requested--Apes and Ape Suits. (For reasons that I do not comprehend, putting guys in ape suits in horror films and comedies was a much-loved feature among producers at Monogram Pictures and elsewhere. Presumably, the public loved it too.)

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Uncomfortable

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

'Frozen Alive' is a sci-fi crime drama

Frozen Alive (1964)
Starring: Mark Stevens and Marianne Koch
Director: Bernard Knowles
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

In "Frozen Alive" a pair of brilliant scientists (Stevens and Koch) are on the threshold of perfecting cryogenic suspended animation for human beings. On the very night the pair decides to cross a scientific line and freeze Stevens, his shrewish wife is found shot to death in their apartment. The police believe that the scientist had himself frozen in the hopes of escaping justice. As evidence mounts that he did indeed murder him, Koch is faced with the choice of letting her beloved co-worker be successfully revived to face the police, or commit murder herself by sabotaging the revival process and let him escape the humilitation.


Primarily a German production, this light-weight sci-fi drama features a truly interational cast--British, American, and German. The acting is all quite good, despite the fact that the dialogue the actors are working with leaves a lot to be desired, and the script does have a number of holes and weakpoints in it. The best part of the film is the climax, which is a slight twist on the "ticking clock" model, and a great use of letting the audience know more than the characters on-screen do.

"Frozen Alive" is a good addition to a "B-movie Night." line-up... not something to lead with, but worth having in the mix.



Sunday, July 25, 2010

Only The Shadow knows who's in the closet

Invisible Avenger (aka Bourbon Street Shadows) (1957)
Starring: Richard Derr, Mark Daniel, and Helen Westcott
Directors: James Wong Howe and Ben Parker
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Lamont Cranston--secretly the vigilant The Shadow (Derr)-- receives a plea for help from a New Orleans band leader for help, he is too late to stop his murder. But, along with his mystical mentor Jorgendra (Daniels) he soon becomes involved with a sexy femme fatale (Westcott) who is part of a spy ring set on preventing the rightful president of a Central American nation from retaking his leadership position from the military junta that overthrew his government.


This is one of two movies about venerable pulp hero "The Shadow" I've come across where, inexplicably, his name is not in the title, nor was even any of the iconic imagery associated with him used to promote the film, either now or then. Even if there WERE some sort of trademark issues that came up after the film was made, they could at least have made a picture of a guy in a black suit, wearing a black fedora and wielding a pair of automatic pistols. As it is, there is NO hint anywhere to identify this as a film about the Shadow until you're watching it.

But this one gets even more strange.

The filmmakers made the odd choice of ditching Lamont Cranston's fierce and loyal lady friend Margo Lane in favor of a close friend and mystical mentor, Jorgendra... and the two come off as confirmed bachelors, long-time companions, and just about every shade of ambiguously gay that it's possible to cram into the film's 70-minute running time.

Yes, while the superhero code of "don't ask, don't tell" is in full effect here, there seems to be little doubt that Lamont and Jorgenda were going where no mystery men had gone long before "Brokeback Mountain" was being hyped as wholly original. (Hmmm... I wonder how useful that whole "power to cloud men's minds" was when Lamont and Jorgenda were on the prowl for some man-meat....)

Not that there's anything wrong with an ambiguously gay dynamic duo fighting spies, as it gives rise to plenty of unintentional comedy as the film unfolds. However, getting rid of Margo Lane and replacing her with a the effeminately Euro-trashy mystic is one of those pointless changes that Hollywood idiots love to impose on properties they adapt... a change that serves absolutely no purpose other than the egos filmmakers (who need to show they know better than the hacks who created long-standing, commercially successful properties that they paid a bucket of money to use in a film), as it's a change for the sake of change.

In fairness to "Invisible Avenger", it was originally intended as a TV series pilot, but the series never happened, Perhaps the producers figured they'd start in the early years of the Shadow, and then have him meet the lovely Ms. Lane as the series progressed... and she'd straighten him out with the love of a woman!

Also in fairness to the film, it has a fast-moving plot that never gives the viewers time to get bored. It's also a fair demonstration of why co-director James Wong Howe one of Hollywood's most respected cinematographers for some three decades, as most shots are expertly framed and there is a great use of light and shadow throughout the picture. The use of camera angles to augment the painfully low budget when it came to showing the Shadow's power to "cloud men's minds" is also very cleverly implemented. The acting isn't stellar, but I've seen far worse.

And I suppose I should also say that, in fairness, the filmmakers back in the 1950s probably didn't realize quite how much a pair of flaming love muffins that Cranston and Jorgenda come across as. When viewed with a modern eye, however, I'm certain that anyone who loved "Brokeback Mountain" just for the gay sheepherder aspect will love "Invisible Avenger" just as much. (It might not be a bad idea to pair the films up a part of a "Macho Men in Love"-themed movie night.)



Friday, July 23, 2010

'Stop Me Before I Kill!''
is flawed but watchable

Stop Me Before I Kill! (aka "The Full Treatment") (1960)
Starring: Ronald Lewis, Claude Dauphin, and Diane Cilento
Director: Val Guest
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A race car driver, Alan Colby (Lewis), recovering from a near-fatal car accident finds himself possessed by nearly uncontrollable urges to murder his wife (Cilento) whenever they are intimate. She convinces him to seek the help of a psychiatrist (Dauphin), but things go from bad to worse when the good doctor proves to have agendas beyond helping his patient recover.

"Stop Me Before I Kill!" (a far weaker title than the original, "The Full Treatment"), has the makings of an excellent psychological thriller, with a cast of characters who each seem simple enough on the surface, but who also each have enough murkiness in their backgrounds that they may be driven by motivations more sinister than the obvious. While it offers some clever twists, it ultimately the film ends up where you expect it to, but enough doubt is thrown on the outcome along the way that the film is still enjoyable.

However, a couple of key missteps keep it from being as good as it could have been.

First of all, the film is a bit too scattered as far as its point of view goes. While most of the film, correctly, is focused around our main protagonist--Alan, the strangely unhinged accident survivor--and events unfold as seen from his point of view, a couple of parts are focused around his well-meaning fiance. While the second of these isn't that damaging to the overall film, especially since it is part of the final confrontation between the film's main characters, the first one is feels like a detour from the rest of the movie that needed to be handled very differently.

Second, the creepy psychiatrist gets way too creepy, way too fast. He is so strange and unpleasant from the very outset that there is never any question in the minds of viewers that he is a Bad Guy. Partway through the movie, as he gains the trust of the protagonist, a little bit of doubt about whether we've misjudged him begins to creep in, but even before we're done second-guessing ourselves, the film proves that we were right all along: Not only is a he a Bad Guy, but he's a Very Bad Guy.

The film, which director Guest co-wrote the script for, would have been much better served if the psychiatrist had come across more likable early on, and then taken on a little bit of shadow and sinisterness as Alex grows increasingly paranoid and obviously nuts. It would have helped the film's overall "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you"-vibe. It would also have strengthened the what-is-now a fairly half-hearted effort to make the wife look like she is out to get Alex, too. Her background hints that she may have reasons, but the way the film is structured never quite makes it believable that she may have it in for him. And in films like this, it's important that at one or more points in the story, the protagonist appears to be all alone and beset by enemies on all sides.

Fairly typical of the thrillers and dramas that were Hammer's bread-and-butter before the studio discovered full-color monsters and babes in flimsy nightgowns, "Stop Me Before I Kill Again!" is not necessarily a film I would go out of my way to seek out, but it's a bit of non-offensive filler in "Icons of Suspense," the multi-film DVD collection of Hammer's black-and-white co-productions with Columbia Pictures.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Webb Wilder: The Human Cannon Ball

One of the CDs in my collection that I haven't thought of in years is the 1990 spot of rock wackiness "Webb Wilder: Hybrid Vigor." Then I spotted this video at Rip Jagger's Dojo:



It's a fun a song, and a fun music video that's all in black-and-white (so it fits the theme here). It prompted me to find the CD, play it, and discover that it's every bit as good as I remember it.

Webb Wilder is apparently still around, still rocking two decades later, with a new CD released last year. He has even starred in a few movies, where he played a hillbilly hardboiled detective. I think I'm going to have to track those down!

Click the link to visit Amazon.com's Webb Wilder Web Store to listen to samples of this band's fun music.


And here are words to live by...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Extra Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Creig Flessel and the Sandman


Illustrator Creig Flessel was there to help kick-start the comic book industry in the late 1930s, drawing covers for numerous titles, and providing pencils for many early "Sandman" tales. He wasn't the first artist to draw the character's adventures--that was Burt Christman--but it was Flessel's art that introduced the character to most readers, as he drew the cover for "Detective Comics" #40, the character's first appearance in a regular comic book series.


Flessel passed away on July 17, 2008. The illustrations in this post are all from the collection of Rob Stolzer, on digital display here.

Most date from the mid-1990s, but this 2006 drawing shows that he was a serious fine artist--because only serious fine artists draw nudes, right?

Click hereto read a review of The Golden Age Sandman Archives, Vol. 1 at Cinema Steve.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Anita Ekberg, Miss Sweden 1950


They don't come much more picture perfect than Anita Ekberg. After earning the Miss Sweden title in 1950, she came to the United States. She first worked as a model, but then spent five years under contract to Universal Pictures in parts that demanded little more of her than to be gorgeous to look at. She returned to Europe, and by the late 1950s, her career had taken off, and she spent the next 30 years appearing in everything from sword-and-sandal fantasy flicks, horror films, comedies, and murder mysteries.

Abbott and Costello vs the Alien Amazons!

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (aka "Rocket and Roll") (1953)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Mari Blanchard, Robert Paige, Horace McMohan, and Anita Ekberg
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When two workmen (Abbott and Costello) accidentally launch with an experimental space rocket, they think they end up on Mars. The truth is, they end up places far stranger than Mars... New Orleans during Mardi Gras and then Venus, a planet governed by immortal Amazons.


As my summary above states, Abbott and Costello never get to Mars in this film, despite the intentions of the builders of the top secret rocket and the movie's title. Instead, they move through a thin plot that is stretched to the breaking point to fill the movie's 77-minute running time, and every joke is beaten to death, particularly during the New Orleans segment. Things pick up a bit when the action moves to Venus (where Costello is made King), but it's only a slight improvement. I'm not even sure if it's the distraction of all the scantily clad beauty queens that tricked me into thinking the film got better.

This is one of the weakest Abbott & Costello pictures, and everyone but truly hardcore fans of their work should probably not bother with it.


Monday, July 19, 2010

What is the deadly secret of the 13th guest?

The Thirteenth Guest (aka "Lady Beware") (1932)
Starring: Lyle Talbot, Ginger Rogers, and J. Farrell MacDonald
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Marie (Rogers), the young heiress to the Morgan fortune, is found mysteriously electrocuted in the family manor that has remained sealed since her father died during a dinner party 13 years prior, Police Captain Ryan (MacDonald) calls upon the assistance of playboy criminologist Phil Winston (Talbot) to help solve the baffling murder. Before Winston can even begin to investigate, the mystery takes an even stranger turn: The dead girl turns up alive and in police custody for car theft... and soon there's a second dead body at the old Morgan place.


"The Thirteenth Guest" is a pretty good little mystery movie for most of its running time. The three lead actors all give decent performances that are in line with what is to be expected from one of these "who-dunnit in the dark, old house" mysteries, and the murderer had a fairly clever set-up with which to commit the murder. There are also just enough plausible suspects and clever plot-twists make it real mystery film.

Unfortunately, for every clever twist there's a plot logic-hole that a truck could be driven through. Equally unfortunate is the presence of a truly lame comic relief character. And I won't even dignify the idiotic mask and cape they have the murderer prance around in with comment. (Hang on... did I just comment on the idiotic mask and cape? Curses!)

The good parts outweigh the bad parts--but only barely--in "The Thirteenth Guest." It's not a film I recommend you rush out to find a copy of, but if you're looking around for a little something to round out a "home film-festival" selection of mystery movies, this might be what you're looking for. Just don't make it the main attraction.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bulldog Drummond vs George Zucco!

Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Heather Angel, H.B. Warner, and George Zucco
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Hugh Drummond (Howard) ends up a murder suspect when an international freelance spy (Zucco) kills an inventor and steals an experimental beam-weapon that remotely detonates gunpowder and explosives. With his wedding plans yet again disrupted, Drummond, his best friend Algy (Denny), his ever-resourceful gentleman's gentleman Tenny (Clive), and his fiance Phyllis (Angel) travel to a tropical island to capture the spy and return the deadly weapon to British hands.

"Arrest Bulldog Drummond" starts sluggishly, has a darker tone than the other entries in the Paramount-produced "Bulldog Drummond" series, and what gags that are present are rather tepid. The film is saved by a strong third act, the usual excellent performances by Howard, Denny, Clive, and Angel (with Denny and Angel getting quite a bit of screen-time, and their characters of Algy and Phyllis taking more active roles in the plot than usual), and a nifty turn by George Zucco as the sinister spy Rolf Alferson. Unfortunately, Colonel Nielsen (Warner) is once again reduced to a blithering idiot by the writers (something which seems to be a hallmark of the worst installments in the series.)

With a near equal amount of good parts and bad parts, "Arrest Bulldog Drummond" is one of the weakest entries in the series, with the strong finish and good performances by Zucco and the regular cast members barely managing to elevate the film to the upper-end of average. It's okay, but you won't miss much if you skip it.



Friday, July 16, 2010

'Adam Strange' is fun sci-fi/pulp comics

Showcase Presents: Adam Strange, Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2007)
Writer: Gardner Fox
Artists, Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs, and Gil Kane
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars


With "Showcase Presents: Adam Strange, Vol. 1", DC Comics has added another great, low-priced book that reprints 500+ pages of some of the best American comics ever published. This time out, it's the earliest adventures of a man who lives in two worlds... an archeologist who every 62 days is transported by Zeta-Beam to the distant world of Rann where he straps on a rocketpack, grabs a raygun, and fights alien evils until the radiation wears off and he returns to Earth.


Originally published in issues of "Showcase" and "Mystery in Space" between 1958 and 1963, from the very first episode writer Gardner Fox spun some great pulp-flavored sci-fi adventures tales that read like a cross classic Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars stories. They're excellent reading that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages, and the adventures are enhanced by the romantic relationship between Adam and the alien beauty Alanna.

The art is passable from the very beginning, but it doesn't become truly great until Carmine Infantino becomes the strip's regular penciller. When Murphy Anderson comes onboard as the inker in the second half of the book, readers are treated to some of the best-looking American comics art ever published. The team of Infantino and Anderson was a truly spectacular one.

If you enjoy well-done comics and sci-fi adventure tales, I think you'll enjoy "Adam Strange, Vol. 1".



Tuesday, July 13, 2010

'Revolt of the Zombies' is a non-event

(I like the poster though.)

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

Starring: Dean Jagger and Dorothy Stone
Director: Victor Halperin
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

At the height of World War I, a French officer (Jagger) brings to his generals the ultimate weapon: the secret to creating impervious zombie soldiers! Unfortunately, before the Cambodian monk can be made to share this secret with the Europeans, he is murdered by a sinister enemy agent. A military expedition is sent to the darkest heart of Cambodia's jungles to see if the secret can be recovered.

"Revolt of the Zombies" actually has a really interesting plot at its heart. Too bad the filmmakers completely botched this movie, with awful dialogue and pacing that is at once too slow and too fast--important events happen off-screen and are then relayed to the viewers by the characters in boring exposition. Worse, the movie ultimately chickens out in regards to both its use of zombies in the story AND in regards to what seemed to have been its message about the negative impact of European colonialism with an "absolute power corrupts absolutely." What's more... there ain't no damn zombie revolt in the film (but that's because there aren't any real zombies, either).

I probably would have shrugged my shoulders at this one--it's just another low-budget, crappy horror film--but it was made as a follow-up to the fabulous "White Zombie." I expected more of "Revolt of the Zombies" because "White Zombie" is a dyed-in-the-wool classic horror film, one of the best zombie movies ever made (and perhaps even the *first* zombie movie ever made), and it was as low-budget as "Revolt."





Click here to read my review of "White Zombie" at The Bela Lugosi Collection.

Appeasement Doesn’t Work

In case you haven't heard, Seattle-based artist Molly Norris is under death threat from the worshipers of Mohammed--for NOT drawing their idol. Although she sparked the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" idea, she disavowed it when OTHERS made it a reality, and she did everything she could to apologize for expressing an idea, short of offering to pay for the gay sex the mullahs and members of al-Qaeda so desperately crave.

You know... she apologized left, right, and center for something that Americans should consider one of our inalienable right. The free and open expression of ideas.

Novelist Edward Cline has written a column at Big Hollywood on the matter: Appeasement Doesn’t Work--Fatwa Issued Against ‘Draw Mohammed Day’ Cartoonist

As for me, as promised, here's a Mohammed cartoon, in observance of the latest Mo-toon controversy.



(This cartoon from 2005 was the first installment in the weekly adventures of Bestest Prophet Pals, Jesus and Mo. You can see many more of them at www.jesusandmo.net.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wedding delayed again... by murder.

Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, H.B. Warner, Loe Carroll, Forester Harvey, and Elizabeth Patterson
Dirrector: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Just as it appears Hugh Drummond (Howard) and Phyllis Clalvering (Angel) are finally going to make it to their own wedding, a cooky historian (Harvey) shows up on the doorstep and says he comes to search for a massive treasure hidden in the catacombs below the Drummond family's ancestral home. A treasure hunt isn't enough to disrupt the wedding plans--Drummond thinks that can wait until the day after he and Clavering married--but the murder of the historian is. Drummond, his friend Algy (Denny), his faithful servant Tenny (Clive), house-guest Colonel Nielsen of Scotland Yard (Warner), and even Miss Clavering are soon searching the long-abandoned tunnels in search of a treasure and a deadly killer. But it's a deadly hunt, because the killer is one step ahead of them.


"Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police" is another strong entry in the series. The physical humor is strong in this one, and the action is fast-moving, entertaining, and downright suspenseful at times. In fact, there's a scene where several of our heroes are in ancient death trap and it actually feels like they might not escape.

The regular cast is excellent as usual, and they have Reginald Denny is funnier in this installment than he as ever been before, and Clive gets some excellent zingers off as well, with Tenny's signature "I rather like it" line being used to great effect on multiple occassions. Howard and Angel once again display excellent on-screen chemistry, and the viewer can easily understand why the two characters keep trying over and over again to get married, despite Fate continuially getting in their way. (In fact, Angel is perhaps the best I've ever seen her in this film--she lights up the screen in every scene she appears in, and she ends up as one of the feistiest "damels in distress" to ever make the bad guy regret taking prisoners.)

To add to the quality, this film can even serve as a jumping-on point for those who don't want to watch from the beginning. As it unfolds, the film manages to give a quick introduction of the characters and the ongoing "Road to the Wedding" subplot that's been running through the series since "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" without boring those of us who have watched all the previous installments.

As good as it is, this episode is not exactly perfect. First, there is a very annoying, very stupid comic relief character that makes Algy look like a genius. Second, there's a problem with the villain of this episode. He's written in a very sinister fashion, he's got some good lines, and he proves to be a real threat to Our Heroes... but he's played by an actor who's nearly a non-entity compared to the high-energy performers he's surrounded by. Leo Carroll isn't exactly bad, but he's out of his league with the "Bulldog Drummond" ensamble.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This series of "Bulldog Drummond" films reminds me more of the "Indiana Jones" series than any other films from the 1930s I've seen. Heck, there's even a death-trap scene in this one that brings part of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to mind... and in this installment Drummond and the gang are hunting for a lost treasure in an ancient castle!




Friday, July 9, 2010

Leave your brain off for this one....

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (aka "The Head That Wouldn't Die") (1961)
Starring: Herb Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels, Adele Lamont, and Bruce Brighton
Director: Joseph Green
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Bill Cortner (Evers) is a surgeon and research scientiest who has developed new techniques for reviving dead flesh, techniques he knows will revolutionize surgery and transplants not only of organts but of limbs. After his fiance Jan (Leith) is decapiated in a car accident, he uses his techniqaue to keep her head alive while he prowls strip-joints and bikini constests for the perfect body to transpant it onto.


I promise to refrain from any "she gave great head" jokes while reviewing "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" (wait... I think I may have just broken that promise), because while this low-budget cross between "Frankenstein", "Donovan's Brain", and a cheesy exploitation flick may be exceedingly goofy, it does feature some genuinely terrifying moments.

The car accident that claims Jan's life, the scene where the Monster in the Closet gets its hands on Cortner's assistant Kurt (Daniels) and delivers a gory and ironic death to him, and Cortner's luring and poisoning of the owner of Jan's new body (Lamont), and the full revelation of the Monster--which I almost gave away with a still here, but then thought better of it--are all top-notch horrific moments. Unfortunately, they are almost without fail followed up by unintentional comedy (such as Kurt's never-ending death scene).


The film features actors who give better performances than I expected from a film like this, but they are undermined by a terrible script. To describe the dialogue in "The Brain" as stilted and flowery is being kind--some of the lines are so overblown and pompous that it's shocking that any actor could deliver them with a straight face. And just about ever single line uttered by Cortner after he starts prowling the city for a woman to serve as the recepient of Jan's head should be followed with a "bwahahahaha!" they're so pregnant with "Aren't I evil?" references and dual-meanings.

A bigger problem is that the film is padded. The exploitation parts--cat-fighting strippers, prancing bikini-babes, and the private model session given by Lamont's character--mostly detract from the narrative instead of adding to it, causing the film to drag. The purple prose that is the film's dialogue also helps drag it down below average. The good parts are good enough to keep it sinking into the depths of complete and total awfulness, but "good" is stiil not the word that should come up while giving an overall opinion on "The Brain That Wouldn't Die."

(Oh, here's a curious fact, only tangentially related to the movie. The version I viewed--included in Brentwood Video's "The Dead Walk" multi-DVD pack--has a couple of quirks about it. First, there a couple of instances where the reels aren't transferred right and we are treated to what I assume are film leads; instead of a test pattern and beeps, these leads are white and feature a male voice reciting part of a prayer, or reading lines from the Bible. The first time it happened, I had a "WTF" moment... but the second time, I realized it was a problem of some sort with the transfer to DVD. Second, the filmmakers apparently couldn't get the name of their own movie straight: It's called two different things between the opening ald closing titles, with both of the titles listed at the top of this review actually appearing on the film--one at the main title credits, and one at the end title credits.



Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Action almost unknown in 'Unknown World'

Unknwon World (aka "To the Center of the Earth") (1951)
Starring: Victor Kilian, Bruce Kellogg, Marilyn Nash, and Otto Waldis
Director: Terry O. Morse
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of obnoxious scientiest and their boorish, wealthy patron hop in their nifty drilling, amphibeous under-earth ATV--the Cyclotram!--to explore deep underground, hoping to find a place where humankind can retreat to in case of a nuclear disaster.


Never has so little happened during a "let's go looking for the underground world"-type movie. I think I can safely say that, despite the high bodycount among expedition members, the enterprise undertaken by the characters in "Unknown World" is the least eventful, most uninteresting, and ultimately pointles journey to "inner-earth" that any fictional characters have ever undertaken.

There's no much here, exept a slighly more scientific take on what explorers might find deep underground--as in, no monsters, no nubile, scantily clad queens of Atlantis, no nothing. And, frankly, if you're going to make a movie about guys drilling their way to the center of the Earth, you better damn well give me some monsters and nubile barbarian queens at the far end! ("The Core" would have been better if there had been babes in loinclothes and little else at the end of that trip, too.)



Picture (Im)perfect Wednesday



(The menu screen from "Ski Troop Attack," as found in BCI's budget collection The Cult Films of Roger Corman.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fine romantic comedy presented in comics

Maison Ikokku, Vols. 1-14 (original Viz English language edition)
Story and Art: Rumiko Takahashi
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Maison Ikkoku" is a romantic comedy that focuses on Godai, a young man who falls in love with the manager of his apartment building (the building is what the series is named for). The manager is Kyoko, a young widow who is still recovering from the loss of her husband, her first and (so far) only true love.


The series follows the development of Godai and Kyoko's relationship, as it is threatened by romantic rivals, the general weirdness of the other residents of Maison Ikkoku, and misunderstandings that, if featured on sit-coms, might actualy make them worth watching. The readers also get to follow the emotional growth of Godai and Kyoko, both of whom really have a lot of maturing to do when the series starts. Although the supporting cast and much of the comedic antics are pure slap-stick, Godai and Kyoko are very real characters in whom you will become emotionally invested... and for whom you may well feel yourself misting up when their story comes to an end.

"Maison Ikkoku" consists of 14 volumes. As with all of Takahashi's work, the art is pleasing to the eye, the characters are all likable, and the humour is genuinely funny. Some elements of the story grow out of Japanese culture, but the characters are developed enough that the reader can nonetheless relate to all their reactions, viewpoints, joys and heartbreaks.

A quick search tells me that this series is currently out of print in English. That's a shame, because it truly is one of the better comic books/graphic novel series to ever have been penned. (Yeah, yeah... it's not a comic book, it's manga--blah-blah-blah. It's got panels, it's got speech bubbles, it's got sound-effects drawn in... it's a comic book.)

However, I think if you go to the library, eBay.com, or Half-Priced Book for a cheap second-hand copy of Vol. 1 of the series and follow it through to the end, you'll agree with me that it's an amazing bit of work. You'll also get to watch Takahashi's style evolve. "Maison Ikkoku" was one of her first long-running series; her style clearly developes and improves as it goes along, but even those rough first volumes are far and above superior to run-of-the-mill comics both back then and today.

(Note: This review and the Nine Star-rating is based on the original Viz editions. The current printing is in the "non-flipped" mode, and the books read right to left, back to front. The more recent editions gets Five Stars for Viz's butchering of what was a fine translation of this Japanese series. For my commentary on the obnoxious, cheap way Japanese comics have been increasingly presented in English since 2005,click here.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Fourth of July to my U.S. readers!

Here's an image from a 1918 Independence Day parade.


I wish everyone a happy and safe celebration of America's birthday.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Nancy Drew: Trouble-shooter
or Trouble-maker?

Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter (1938)
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas, John Litel, Eville Alderson, Charlotte Wynters, Willie Best and Aldrich Bowker
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a family friend (Bowker) is accused of murder, celebrated attorney Carson Drew (Litel) travels to a small country town to defend him at trial. As Carson builds his case and finds romance with a local lady (Wynters), his teenaged daugther Nancy (Granville) and her long-suffering friend Ted (Thomas) set about to prove his client's innocence by finding the real killers.


"Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter" is a fast-movie action/comedy with a fairly simply mystery thrown in for good measure. Its pacing and general story thrust reminds me of some of the juvenile mysteries I read as a kid, so I found it quite entertaining. (Someone who's actually read some of the original Nancy Drew books tells me that everyone is behaving very much out of character, but if taken on its own merits, this is a fun little movie.)

While the thrills I'm positive this film generated for its young target audience in 1939 were far greater than those they will inspire in kids today, I think this is a film that modern youngsters might enjoy, particularly if they're readers who are interested in mysteries. The story moves fast enough and the situations that Nancy and Ted end up in are dangerous enough that I think they will be drawn into the action. It can also serve as a great conversation piece between parents and kids who may be studying American history or who just have an interest in history. It is a clear illustration of how much society has changed in the seventy years since the film's release--all the main characters featured in the film are wealthy, yet the country house the Drew's stay in doesn't have gas or running water or a phone. That's just the most obvious "study guide" element present in this film,

If you like old time detective films and comedies, I think you'll be entertained by "Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter", no matter what your age.



'Night of the Blood Beast' had
promising script, but not much else

Night Of The Blood Beast (1958)
Starring: Michael Emmet, Angela Green, Ed Nelson, John Baer, Georgianna Carter, and Tyler McVey
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Things go from bad to worse for the scientists at an isolated observation post maintained by the US space program. First, they have the sad duty of recovering the body of an astronaut(Emmet) from the wreckage of a crashed experimental spacecraft (which they helped design). Then, they find themselves cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious magnetic disturbance. But when the dead astronaut is restored to life by alien microbes that are breeding in his bloodstream, things are at their lowest. Well, until the parent alien shows up to check on its incubator and engage in some murderous mayhem.


"Night of the Blood Beast" has all the makings of a truly fun sci-if horror movie. It's a film that could due with a remake by a talented filmmaker with a good cast, as it could be lots of gory fun. "Evil Dead" but with aliens is the possibility that is lurking within this film.

However, what presently exists is this movie, something that's barely worth watching. While it's a fine example of how to make a film with very little money--small cast, limited sets and locations--but also of how editing can ruin a movie. Although it only runs 62 minutes, "Night of the Blood Beast" seems far longer than that, because nearly every bit of dialogue is punctuated with a pause, almost every scene runs longer than it needs to, and whenever the characters venture outside in search of the creature menacing them, it's like we get to see their entire two-mile hikes.

Of course, this could be the fault of the director rather than the editor. Bernard L. Kowalski also directed the slow-moving, almost-as-boring "Attack of the Giant Leeches" (review here). Like that other movie, this one has some nice moments--such as when our heroes return to the lab to find one of their number suspended from the ceiling with his head missing--but most of the movie is just a little too slow to be interesting.

It is, however, a near-perfect vehicle for a "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-type bash-fest if you and your friends are into that sort of thing. The cheap sets and effects, the goofy monster costume, the agenda and methods of the would-be alien overlord, the interactions between the characters, and, just as importantly, the many pauses so-pregnant-we-may-need-to-deliver-the-next-line-by-C-section, are all ripe breeding ground for witty and caustic commentary. (I'd be surprised if this film wasn't featured on the MST3K show.)




Friday, July 2, 2010

Drummond takes on spies in Africa

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938)
Starring: John Howard, E.E Clive, J. Carroll Naish, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, and H.B. Warner
Director: Louis King
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Despite some extreme measures that adventurer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) and his friends take to stop him from being drawn into yet another adventure that will ruin the plans for his wedding, Fate once again intervenes. When his fiance, Phyllis Clavering (Angel), witnesses the kidnapping of Scotland Yard's Colonel Nielsen (Warner) by notorious freelance spy Richard Lane (Naish), Drummond and the gang persue the bad guys all the way to Morocco to rescue him.


"Bulldog Drummond in Africa" is one of the very best in the series released by Paramount Pictures. It's got some of the best gags (Drummond and Tenny, trapped in Rockingham Lodge without pants and money to keep Drummond from being lured into trouble, doing Scottish dances in improvised kilts to entertain themselves gives even more entertaiment for the viewers), it's got the most suspenseful storyline so far (with everyone being placed in extreme mortal danger during the unfolding story, and Drummond and the entire gang having one of their most narrow escapes ever). From its opening scene to the final fade-out, the film moves along at lightning pace, never letting off on the banter, action, or antics.

On the acting front, Howard, Clive, and Denny return as the characters they've played in previous films, and they do their usual excellent jobs. Denny's character of Algy Longworth (the undisputed champion in the Upperclass Twit Olympics) has a little more to do in this film, and viewers who might have started to wonder why Drummond tolerates him, can start to understand why.

Also, Heather Angel and J. Carroll Naish return to the series with this episode, Angel resumes the role of Phyllis Clavering (which she played in "Bulldog Drummond's Escape"), while Naish appears as a different bad guy than he played previously. Both are excellent in their parts, with Angel delivering a more energetic Clavering than Louise Campbell did in the intervening three films. (Campbell did a good job, but I prefer Angel's Phyllis.) Naish, meanwhile, is playing a far more interesting, competent, and evil villian than the one he portrayed in "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back". He has some nice lines, and the always jovial demeanor of Richard Lane, who is a murderous sociopath, makes for a bad guy who is fun to watch, particularly in interplay with new series regular H.B. Warner, who takes over the role of Colonel Nielsen from John Barrymore.

With Warner joining the cast, Nielsen returns to the sort of character he was in the first couple of films. It's hard to say whether Nielsen was badly written in "Bulldog Drummond's Peril", but here the character is back in form, and the calm, upper-lip-so-stiff-it-must-be-made-of-bone fashion he deals with Lang and his spy collegues makes it clear why Nielsen and Drummond are good friends. Nielsen is far more than just a former Army officer and high-level government official--he's every bit the hardcase adventurer as Drummond, and we get to see that in this film, even if he is basically the "damsel in distress."

I recommend this film to fans of 1930s and 1940s pulp fiction tales, adventure films, and even those who enjoy the "Indiana Jones" movies. While this isn't a good point at which to start the series, those who have seen one or more of the earlier films should note that as of the fifth entry, this series is still on an upward quality climb. There are few other movie series that can be said about.