Friday, September 18, 2015

Mermaids: The Deadliest Catch?

NUELOW Games has just released its latest art pack--"Mermaids & Skin Divers." Here are a few samples.

By Ralph Mayo
By Dick Ayers
Like always, the artwork in this set is licensed to purchasers to use in almost any way they like. You can see previews of the entire collection (as well as the royalty-free usage license)  by clicking here to visit RPGNow.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Get ready for Halloween with 'Dracula: The Complete Legacy Collection'

Nothing says Halloween like Bela Lugosi (at least for me)... and he is tightly associated with the character of Dracula, even if he only played the character on screen twice. As you get ready for Halloween, I recommend warming up by watching one movie from this set each Friday in October... and then relaxing on the night itself with one of the greatest "monster mash" movies of all time--also included among the seven movies in "Dracula: The Complete Legacy Collection". Each film included is a certified classic!

Even if I'm of the opinion that while the original Universal Studio's "Dracula" film, one of the very important first building blocks of the cinematic horror genre, it is also is overrated.

Watching it in close proximity to the sequels from the 1930s and 1940s and, more importantly, to the Spanish-language "Dracula" that was filmed simultaneously to the English-language version and on the same sets but with a different cast and crew, I am more convinced than ever.

Without "Dracula," the horror film industry as we know it would never have come to be. However, the movie is inferior to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein" and even the independently produced, Bela Lugosi-starring, low budget chiller "White Zombie" are far better movies. It's not even as good as the Spanish-language "Dracula." In fact, the only thing better in the English version of Dracula than the Spanish version is Bela Lugosi. The guy doing Dracula in the Spanish version isn't even in the same league.

Both of Universal's 1931 versions of "Dracula" and immediate sequels are available in a very affordable, very well put together package. (My only complaint is that they included "House of Dracula" in this set instead of putting it the Wolf Man Legacy Collection... but more on that when I post my reviews of the movies included in that set.)

Dracula (1931)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, David Manners, and Charles K. Gerrard
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Lugosi) travels to England where he sates his bloodlust on young women, including the lovely Mina (Chandler).

Universal's 1931 "Dracula" was the first horror talkie and is one of the three most influential horror films ever made. It's a film that's truly a significant milestone not only in film history, but in pop culture as well, and, even though its age is showing, it's a genuiine classic.

Mina (Helen Chandler) as she is about to receive the kiss of undeath from Dracula (Bela Lugosi)
I don't think anything quite as subtly creepy and startling as Dracula passing through a mass of cobwebs without breaking them has ever been put on film. It's a perfect film moment, because the feeling of "waitaminnit... did that just happen?" that Renfield (Frye) has is shared by the audience, and we're sitting there with a chill that goes right down to our very bones.

Because this film is such a classic milestone, I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. Like "Frankenstein" (also made by Universal in 1931), this movie has nearly as many flaws as it has elements of perfection.

The biggest problem with "Dracula" is the haphazard way the film unfolds, particularly in its second half. The vampiric Lucy and her preying on little children is dealt with a throw-away fashion, and the climactic encounter at Carfax Abby, which is so weakly and disjointedly handled that it is barely a climax at all. (It's particularly disappointing that Dracula's death happens entirely off-screen, except for a very effective reaction from the psychically bonded Mina.)

In fact, in many ways, it's almost as if someone forgot the movie needed a script, and it was made up as the crew went along. The film is worth seeing for spectacular performances from Bela Lugosi (it's easy to see why he solidified vampires as suave, sharp-dresserrs as opposed to fugly scarecrows like the one featured in "Nosferatu"), Dwight Frye (who, as Renfield, is as much a star of the film as Lugosi, and who does some great acting when he vascilates from raving madman to apparently sane and back again), and Helen Chandler (who, as Mina, conveys more with her eyes, body language, and facial expressions than one would thinks possible, and who has the only decent moment during the film's climax as she shares in Dracula's pain as Van Helsin stakes him). The film's impressive sets and creative camera work also bring about some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Dracula and his vampire brides emerge from their coffins under his Transylvanian castle, and then when they later close on an unconscious Renfield; the discovery of Renfield in the hold of the death ship after it runs aground; Dracula's feeding upon the flower girl in London; Renfield crawling across the floor toward an unconcious maid with a look of madness and bloodlust on his face; Mina's transformation as she urges John Harker to get rid of Van Helsing and his crucifixes; and Dracula and Mina's arrival at Carfax Abby.

But, for every great moment or spectacular performance, there's a boring one, or one where opportunities that should have been obvious to filmmakes even in 1931 are completely missed. Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and David Manners (as a particularly milquetoasty Harker) are completely dead spots in the film, giving weak performances that almost manage to drag down those excellent ones from Chandler, Frye, and Lugosi. (In fact, Van Sloan and Manners are so weak here that it's surprising to me that they;'re the same actors who do so well in "The Mummy" just one years later. (Perhaps the better script and a different director made all the difference for them.)

By the way, the new score that Phillip Glass composed for the restored version of the film included in the "Dracula Legacy Collection" (and which can be toggled on and off) is actually a fine reflection of the movie itself: Glass has some good moments and some supremely weak moments in his score. For the most part, it is just Muzak that doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with enhancing the mood on the screen, but every so often, it is spot-on and it makes the film that much more impressive. (Glass's music ALMOST gives the film's climax some impact, for example.)

Although far from perfect, the 1931 "Dracula" is a must-see for anyone with an interest in examining the origins of horror as a separate and unique genre. While I'll take "White Zombie" or "The Mummy" over this film any day, I think the 75 minutes it takes to watch this film, is time well spent.

Dracula (1931 Spanish version)
Starring: Carlos Villar, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Eduardo Arozamana and Carmen Guerrero
Director: George Melford
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Villar) travels to London--where everyone suddenly has taken to speaking Spanish and being Catholic--and sets his undead sights on the sexy Lucia (Guerrero) and the beautfiul, virginal Eva (Tovar). Will occult expert Dr. Van Helsing (Arozamana) and Eva's fiance Juan (Norton) save her from the fiend's embrace of death?

Lupita Tovar and Carlos Villar star in
The 1931 Spanish-language version of "Dracula" was shot simulateously with the more famous Tod Browning version, using the same sets at Universal Studios but its actors and crew shot at night after production wrapped for the day on the other film.

Although treated as a secondary venture by Universal at the time, this film is actually superior to Browning's "Dracula" in many ways. Although it is about half an hour longer, the film seems to move faster due to superior story cohesion, better staging of many scenes, some of the best cinematography I've seen in any of the early talkies, and better acting on the part of many of the principles. For example, the famous scene where Van Helsing suprises Dracula with a mirror while the Count is visiting the Seward house is clearer and far more dramatic due to better placement of the camera and more efficient blocking of the scene in general; and the scene with the near-sexual assault that the Dracula-corrupted and suddenly very horny Eva (Mina renamed for the Spanish version, played with great effectiveness by Lupita Tovar) on Juan (the renamed Jonathan Harker, played by Barry Norton) is both far sexier and far scarier than the one featured in Browning's version.

Not everything here is better than in the Browning version, however. My favorite scene--where Dracula passes through a spiderweb without breaking it--is completely in this version, and the actor they have playing Dracula is more funny than scary or mysterious. Carlos Villar was apparently a big star in his day, but the reason for that is not evident in this film. He has one acting mode--over-acting--and he has two facial expressions, and they both look like he just smelled something that makes the stench from a baby's dirty diaper seem like a sweet-smelling rose. In fact, Villar's performance seems almost like he belongs in a spoof of "Dracula" instead of a serious movie, and he is so bad that if the Dracula character had gotten any more screen time, his presence would have destroyed the movie.

The Spanish-language "Dracula" is a film that anyone who loves the old Universal horror pictures should check out. While it suffers because of Carlos Villar's unintentionally comic performance, this is an excellent film, one deserving to be recognized and honored as a classic cinematic work.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Starring: Gloria Holden Otto Kruger, Edward Van Sloan, Marguerite Churchill, Irving Pichel, and Nan Grey
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dracula may be dead, but his vampire brides live on. While Van Helsing (Van Sloan) languishes in jail for murder, Countess Zaleska (Holden) steals Dracula's body from the police, blesses and cremates it in the hope that she will finally be free of her vampire curse. But, she finds she stll cannot resist the lure of human blood, so she seeks the help of a noted psychiatrist (Kruger) to assist her in finding a way to a peaceful life.

"Dracula's Daughter" is a far better movie than the film it is a sequel to. It has a coherent, engaging story (even if the ultimate climax has a of a rushed feel to it), its got an active and engaging hero (Dr. Garth, a psychiatrist who doesn't believe in vampires, even after one seeks his help), and a villain who wants desperately to be the story's protaganist, Countess Zaleska. What's more, the film has a steady tone and look to it--all classic Universal Horror--unlike :"Dracula", which vasilated between creepy, atmospheric scenes and boring, stale drawing-room scenes. (Of course, one can't be too hard on "Dracula", because it was treading new ground and was made on a sparse budget. By the time 1936 rolled around, and this film was released, not only was the horror genre well-established, but Universal was doing very, very well.)

Now, there are some plot holes that a swarm of bats could fly through if one considers it in the light of the original "Dracula"--like where are John Harker and Mina Seward, both of whom could help clear Van Helsing of the murder charge, just to mention the biggest one--and a couple of developments that feel just a little too convienient... but these are flaws that can be forgiven when one considers what a rare sequen this is. Not only is it better than its predecessor, but it has an identity all its own; it doesn't bring Dracula back so it can retreat the same basic plot all over again, but instead follows a new and unique path.

My favorite thing about the movie is the character of Countess Valeska. It's a character that oozes mystery from her first appearance through to the very end--she's the ultimate femme fatale in every way. She's also a character that, despite being a blood-drinking fiend, she's a character the audience gains sympathy for early on. Unlike the Dracula character, Valeska doesn't want to be evil, doesn't want to be a spreader of death and misery... she wants to live and let live. But, she can't shake the taint of Dracula, and she can't resist the call of vampirism. (It doesn't help any that she's got an evil bastard for a manservant, Sandor. One has to wonder how Valeska might have fared if she's just gone ahead and sucked him dry in celebration of Dracula's demise. Further, while the "recultant vampire" has been done over and over in movies and TV shows, Valeska, despite being the first, remains among the most enjoyable... because while she may lament her fate, she doesn't whine.

In fact, as I'm thinking about it, Countess Valeska is probably one of the best-presented, tragically romantic vampires in any movie I've seen, tying Jack Palance's portrayal in the 1973 Dan Curtis-directed "Dracula" adaptation starring Jack Palance. In both films, the audience can't help but root for the "bad guy" and can't help but feel sorry when their inevitable demise comes about.

One thing that I've often seen made reference to in reviews of "Dracula's Daughter" is lesbianism. I've seen it commented upon as "subtext" and I've seen it stated that it's there, blatant and wide-open. And I simply don't see it; it looks like it's a case of critics reading too much into the film as it unfolds. The scene they tend to point to is the one involving Valeska and a young woman Sandor picks up for her. Maybe I'm just too innocent (or my mind just isn't deep enough in the gutter), but I see nothing sexual about that scene... or any other scene in this film for that matter.

"Dracula's Daughter" is a film that, like "Dracula" is a landmark of cinematic history. It may not be the most famous of films, but it can be found in the DNA of many vampire movies that have been made since. It's worth seeing by anyone who is a serious student of the development of the horror genre, as well as those out there who enjoys classic cinema.

Son of Dracula (1943)
Starring: Robert Paige, Frank Craven, Louise Allbritton, Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, and J. Edward Bromberg
Director: Robert Siodmak
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Eccentric sothern belle Katherine Caldwell (Allbritton) apparently falls under the sway of a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Alucard (Chaney), while traveling in Europe. When he arrives in the United States, strange deaths start happening, and isolates himself and Katherine in her manorhouse on Darkwood Plantation. But after she is accidentially shot to death by her fiance (Paige), the true horror of what Katherine's plans start to emerge.

"Son of Dracula" is a surprisingly effective and mature horror film. I had very low hopes for it when Dracula shows up in Louisiana with the clever aka of "Alucard"--gosh, no one's going to figure that one out!

But fortunately, that's the one bit of childish idiocy in this exceptionally creepy movie.

From Dracula's takeover of Darkwood, to the first time we see Dracula emerge from his swampbound coffin, to Frank going insane from gunning down Katherine... and to the twists and turns the film takes as it moves through its second and third acts. (To reveal that Katherine dies at the hand of Frank is NOT a spoiler for this film. Her death is where the story starts to truly unfold.)

Every scene in this film drips with atmosphere. Despite dating from the mid-1940s where Universal horror films seemed to be targeted primarily at kids, this is a movie with a story that compares nicely to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein". It may even be a little superior to those two, as far as the story goes, because it's got some twists that I guarentee you will not see coming.

The film is also blessed with a score that is surprisingly effective for a Universal horror picture--I tend to find them overblown for the most part, but here the music perfectly compliments what unfolds on the screen--and with a cast that is mostly superb in their roles.

I say mostly, because Lon Chaney Jr. is does not make a good Dracula at all. He comes across like a dockworker who's borrowed someone's tuxedo for the evening (or who maybe took it off the owner after beating him into unconsciousness). There simply is nothing menacing about Chaney's Dracula... he's brutish and, as the film builds to its climax, desperate, but never menacing or frightening. He is quite possibly the worst Dracula I've ever come across.

Aside from a weak "Dracula", everything else in this film is top-notch, resulting in a horror movie that's surprisingly effective and high quality when compared to the rest of Universal's horror output of the time. In fact, it's a movie that may even have been ahead of its time, as the pacing, style, and overall look of the film reminded me more of the British horror movies that would emerge from Hammer Films starting a little more than a decade after "Son of Dracula" was first released.

In fact, whether you prefer the Hammer Dracula films (as I do) or the Universal ones, this is a film that will appeal to you.

House of Dracula (aka "The Wolf Man's Cure")
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Onslow Stevens, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, Martha O'Driscoll, Jane Adams, and Glenn Strange
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Unwilling, immortal werewolf Larry Talbot (Chaney) seeks out Dr. Edelman (Stevens), hoping the doctor's cutting edge therapies will cure his affliction. Unfortunately, the doctor's other patient, Count Dracula (Carradine), endangers this hope when he out of pure malice afflicts Edelman with a condition that causes him to become a violent madman at night. It is during one of these fits that Edelman revives Frankenstein's Monster (Strange), which has been dormant in his lab since it was recovered from mud-floes under Edelman's castle.

"House of Dracula" was the third sequel to "The Wolf Man" and "Dracula" and the fifth sequel to "Frankenstein"... and it was the next-to-last stop for all three of the characters as Universal's decade-and-half long horror ride came to an end. nearly the last stop for Universal's original monsters, and it is something of a high note when compared to other Universal horror films from around the same time, even the one to which this is a sequel, "House of Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff.

The script in "House of Dracula" is stronger and more coherent than "House of Frankenstein". The effort at maintaining continuity with other films featuring the character of the Wolf Man are in evidence here, and they are greatly appreciated by this continuity geek. Also, all the various monster characters each get their moment to shine--unlike in "House of Frankenstein" where Dracula was completely superflous to the storyline and whose presense was little more than a marquee-grabbing cameo.

In this film, Dracula is the well-spring of evil from which the plot flows. Although he supposedly comes to Dr. Edelman seeking release from vampirism and his eternal life, he is either too evil or too stupid to control his desires for Edelman's beautfiful nurse (O'Driscoll). He gets his just desserts, but not before he guarentees that every brave and goodhearted character in the film is set on a path of destruction.

The climactic scenes of this film, as the insane Dr. Edelman and Frankenstein's Monster go on homicidal rampages, feature some very, sudden, casual, and matter-of-fact brutality. (I can't go into details without spoiling the plot, but two main characters are dispatched with such swift and surprisingly brutal fashion that modern-day horror filmmakers should take a look at the final minutes of "House of Dracula" and attempt to learn some lessons from them.)

And then there's Larry Talbot. The role of the wolf man in this story is the meatiest since the character's debut in "The Wolf Man". Although he still doesn't get to have the stage to himself, and he is once again a secondary character--the main character of "House of Dracula" is the unfortunate Dr. Edelman--he has some great moments... like his suicide attempt and his discovery of the dormant Frankenstein's Monster.

Acting-wise, this is also one of the better than many other Universal horror films of the period. This is partly due to a superior script that features a story that actually flows with some degree of logic and where the actors have some fairly decent lines to deliever.

Lon Chaney Jr. does his usual excellent job as Larry Talbot, but Onslow also shines as a scientific genius who's a little less mad than the standard in a movie like this (well, at least until Dracula is done with him).

John Carradine performs decently, but I simply can't buy him as Dracula. Even in his younger years, he had the look of a burned-out, alcoholic bum, and the lighting and make-up in this feature strengthen that look as far as I'm concerned. While miscast, he does a decent job.

Lionel Atwill is also on hand for another fine supporting role. The part is similar to the one he played in "Son of Frankenstein", but the role is even more interesting, as he's the voice of reason in a town that is otherwise inhabited by villagers whose favorite pastime seems to be grabbing torches and storming the castle.

When all things are taken into account, this is the best "serious" Universal "Monster Mash" movies. It's second only in quality to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and I think it's a film that is worth seeing by modern horror fans... particularly if they also have aspirations of being filmmakers.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolfman, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvenated monster!

"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Judy Carne

English dancer-turned-actress/singer Judy Carne, who is best known for starring in "Love on a Roof Top" and appearing on the first two seasons of "Laugh-In" passed away on September 3, 2015. She did many guest-appearances on iconic television shows from the 1960s and 1970s.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Get ready for Halloween with the 'Invisible Man Complete Legacy Collection'

This is the time where the mind turns to horror movies, given that October and Halloween are fast approaching. Allow me to suggest that you spend some time with the classics this time around. And you can't get more classic (or classy) than films from the Golden Age of Universal Horror. You can build a library of great horror classics quickly with the entries in Universal's "Legacy Collection" series.

One of these sets presented all five of the original "Invisible Man" movies from the 1930s and 1940s, some appearing here for the very first time on DVD. The Invisible Man entry in Abbott & Costello's series of comedies where Universal put their 1930s monsters out to pasture is also included (You can, for example, watch one each Thursday in October as you prepare yourself for the Night of Walking and Knocking Candy Hungry Horrors! And you can wind down from the horror of it all with "Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man" on the Big Night itself.)

The main attraction of the set is the original 1933 "Invisible Man" starring Claude Rains--which features an informative running commentary of historical facts about the film and its stars on the SAP track--but the "bonus features" are for the most part also films that any move buff will be delighted to see. (None of the four sequels from the 1940s rise to the level of greatness of the original film, but they also don't sink to the level of crapitude that the so-called sequels to "The Mummy" did.)

I review all five movies in the set in this post. You can get more information (as well as purchase information at by clicking on the ad link at the bottom of the post.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Starring: Claude Rains, William Harrigan, Una O'Connor, Gloria Stuart, Forrester Harvey and Henry Travers
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Chemist Frank Griffin (Rains) developes a formula that turned him invisible. He goes on a homicidal rampage in rural Britain after it also drives him insane.

Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in a scene from
"The Invisible Man" is another true classic from the formative years of the horror genre. It's quite possibly the first horror comedy and it's black humor holds up nicely even today--arrogant scientists, simple country bumpkins and incompetent cops never go out of style!

The film's special effects also hold up surprisingly well, with simple techniques employed here that were used over and over until CGI came fully into its own but rarely used as well as they were here. (Yes, there are a few places where one can see the matting, but the "invisible action" here is depicted better than it was in a film made 60 years later, "Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight".)

And finally, the film has a literate, finely honed script with loads of tension that effectively translates the mood of H.G. Wells' original novel to the screen. The characters seem well-rounded and believeable, and this, even more than the special effects, make the movie such a pleasure to watch even now. The film even manages to capture the point about loss of identity resulting in loss of connection with the world around you and ultimatley insanity (even if the movie attributes Griffin's madness first and foremost to the chemical concoction he's created.)

Lovers of classy horror and sci-fi films owe it to themselves to check this one out. The same is true if you have an appreciation for dark comedies.

The Invisible Woman (1940)
Starring: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charles Ruggles, Charles Lane, Donald McBride, Oskar Homolka and Shemp Howard
Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A runway model (Bruce) volunteers to test an invisibility machine so she can get back at her abusive boss. Things get complicated when gangsters decide they want the machine for their own purposes.

Just because she's invisible, doesn't mean a girl can't show off her greatest assests in this scene from The Invisible Woman.
"The Invisible Woman" was touted as a sequal to "The Invisible Man", but it has nothing in common with that movie... other than the word "invisible" in the title.

This film is a light comedy with some screwball elements and slight romantic touches. Everything is played for laughs and the film is perhaps even funnier now because of some of the outdated social attitudes on display in the film. (At the time, the solution to dealing with the problem of having to pick up a passed out naked woman was the source of humor, but today it's the fact that both John Barrymore and John Howard's characters were too gentlemanly to touch her bare skin is the funny part.)

"The Invisible Woman" is a charming piece of fluff featuring a fast-paced script and a cast of fine comedic actors. It's the odd (wo)man out in Universal's "The Invisible Man Legacy Collection", but it still adds value to the set.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway, John Sutton and Alan Napier
Director: Joe May
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wrongly convicted man (Price) uses an invisibility serum to escape execution and find the murderer who framed him. But, even with the help of his loving fiance (Grey) and his loyal best friend (Sutton), can he track the killer before he is driven mad by the subtance that renders him invisible?

John Sutton (left), Nan Grey and Vincent Price in a scene from The Invisible Man Returns
"The Return of the Invisible Man" is a well-conceived sequel. It's got significant ties to the original, retains some of the same basic themes, but presents a completely different and unique story. Too often, sequels either shoehorn connections to the film into the story in an artificial manner or have so little to do with the original that one wonders why a connection was even drawn (well, aside from naked greedy attempts to ride on the coat-tails of another film's success).

A well-scripted mystery is added to the invisible man shenanigans... and although it's a bit slow in getting started, it is a gripping tale once it gets going. The mystery isn't terribly hard to solve for those who like playing along--there really is only one suspect and the film never launches any serious attempt to divert the audience's attention from that villain. However, plenty of suspense arises from watching the invisible man start to lose his mind even as he indentifies his prey.

The great cast of the film is also to be credited with its success. Most noteworthy among the actors are Vicent Price lends his distinctive voice to the film's unseen protagonist, and Cecil Kellaway who appears in a rare dramatic role as the inscrutible Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard.

The only complaint I have with the film are the invisiblity effects. Whether due to a lack of budget or creativity on the part of the director and special effects crew, there is nothing here as impressive as the cinematic tricks used to sell the presense of an invisible character on screen as was found in the original "Invisible Man" nor in the "Invisible Woman", a comedy dating from the same year yet featuring far more impressive effects. (Nothing in "The Invisible Man Returns" comes close to the bicycle stunt in "The Invisible Man" or the stockings scene in "The Invisible Woman".)

However, the solid story and excellent cast make up for the shortcomings in the special effects department.

Invisible Agent (1942)

Starring: Jon Hall, Cedric Hardwicke, Ilona Massey, Peter Lorre and J. Edward Bomberg
Director: Edwin L.Marin
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After he is threatened by Axis agents, Frank (Hall) decides to put the invisibility formula invented by his grandfather to use in the War Effort. He parachutes into Germany, teams up with a beautiful allied spy (Massey) and sets about destroying the organizers of a Fifth Column operation in the United States (Hardwicke and Lorre).

The sexy deep-cover agent for the Allies (Ilona Massey) looks on as the Invisible Agent makes himself visible
"Invisible Agent" is the second real sequel to "The Invisible Man". It's also an average WW2 propaganda film that shows the the Axis to be as foolish, evil and treacherous as can be imagined, while the Allies are brilliant and right-minded. Sort of.

While the Nazis are as nefarious as possible--decietful, backstabbing Hitler-worshipping sycophantic cowards every last one of them--our hero is also a bit hard to root for. Frank, as the invisible super-spy, is either dumb as a post or the invisibility forumula has a different effect on him than it had on those how used it in "The Invisible Man" and "The Invisible Man Returns". Instead of turning into the sort of megalomaniac who would try to get to Hitler and replace him as the leader of the Riech (which Griffin from the original film would almost certainly have done), Frank instead plays pranks on the Nazis at inopportune times--endangering both himself and deep-cover double-agent Massey--and falls into deep, coma-like sleeps at even worse times. Is it the invisibility formula at work, is Frank a moron, or is it just bad writing? Whatever the explanation, the Invisible Agent isn't much of a hero to root for... unless you're a 13 year old (who are probably the target audience for the film).

The target audience might also be the reason why it feels like a couple of punches were being pulled in this movie. While the Nazis are definately decadent scum in this movie, their evil doesn't even come close to approaching that displayed in indepdent productions from the time like "Hitler, Dead or Alive" or "Beast of Berlin", films that share many thematic and propaganda-content elements to this movie. Either, the fantastic elements of an invisible spy led Universal to choose to target it at a younger audience--and thus toned down some of the more unpleasant aspects of the Nazis--or maybe the very fact that Universal was a major film studio and corporation with international interests even in the 1940s and the two other films I mentioned were made by small operations limited the studio's desire to make a film that savaged the Axis as fully as it deserved.

The film is fun enough and the invisible man effects are decent--as is the idea that the invisible man here chooses to make himself visible using cold cream and a towel draped over his head instead of somehow finding yards worth of bandages everywhere he goes. The actors also give good performances, with only Peter Lorre failing to convince; he plays a Japanese intelligence agent and he is about as unconvincing as I would be if cast in the part of a Somali pirate captain. I can only imagine how bad the "Mr. Moto" films must be....

The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
Starring: Jon Hall, Leon Erroll, John Carradine, Lester Matthews, Alan Curtis and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A psychopath (Hall) is made invisible by an eccentric scientist (Carradine) and he sets out to get revenge on those he believes have wronged him.

From right to left: Alan Curtis, Evelyn Ankers and the outline of Jon Hall in a publicity still for The Invisible Man's Revenge.
Here's a film with decent special effects (or its time, and which are actually undermined a bit by the crystal clarity of the DVD transfer because you can see how some of them were done), with a good cast all giving decent performances, and a competent technical crew from the lighting, to the photography, editing, and musical score. Unfortunately, all these quality elements can't make up for the fact that the script is awful.

It might be that the kids in the matinee audience for whom this film must have been made wouldn't notice or care, but it bothered me that none of the principal characters were people you could root for or even care about--Robert Griffin (Jon Hall), the invisible man, is a crazy murderer from the outset, but whether his perception of old slights is true or not, when he does appear his old friend Sir Jasper Herrick (Lester Matthews) does everything short of killing him to get him out of the way, so this gives him a true grevience. With Griffin and Herrick both being scumbags, the audience has no one to be on the side of.

We might have found our heroes in tabloid reporter Mark Foster (Alan Curtis) and his girlfriend Julie (Evelyn Ankers), the daughter of Sir Jasper. but they have such limited screentime and arer so woefully underdeveloped that their presense in the film feel almost perfuctory and like items on a check list that were included just because they were on the list. ("We've got a maniac, so we need to have an intrepid journalist and a potential damsel in distress. Yeah, they don't do much in the story, but the forumla says they need to be there." (The irrelevancy of Ankers character is driven home completely by the fact that she doesn't even end up a damsel in distress... Griffin targets Foster in the films climactic scenes during the one time when the film manages to muster some real suspense and concern for a character in it.)

"The Invisible Man's Revenge" was the last of the inivisble man movies to be made in the 1940s, and it shows the studio probably should have called it quits after "The Invisible Agent". It's the weakest of the five movies included in the "Invisible Man Legacy Collection," but it's also the weakest. It also has no connection to 1933's "The Invisible Man," but instead goes an entirely different direction like "The Invisible Woman" did.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Starring: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Bud and Lou, a pair of rookie detectives (Abbott and Costello), are hired to helping a boxer who has been falsely accused of murdering his coach, they soon find their client is harder to spot than clues: The desperate man drinks an experimental invisibility potion to avoid being captured by the police, and he then proceeds to help them set up a frame to unmask the real killers.

This film has some great comedy routines in it, with the best of them involving boxing--such as when Costello is supposedly boxing a prize fighter but it's the invisible man who is landing the punches. Unfortunately, the material that gets us from one gag to the next is rather dull. This is the first Abbott and Costello film I've watched where I found myself reaching for other things to do while it was running. (I must add, though, that the special effects were well done, particularly the one where the invisible man is driving a car.)

"Abbott and Costello Meet Invisible Man" isn't exactly a bad movie, but I was expecting more from it. I think those who have seen other A&C horror spoofs will, too.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Black Dwarf Strikes at NUELOW Games!

Paul Gattuso's "Black Dwarf" is the latest hero to be retrieved from the forgotten corners of comic book history and put in front of modern audiences where he will find (I hope) new fans.

Black Dwarf is another of the many cool characters that came out of Harry Chesler's production studio during the early 1940s, debuting in the pages of Spotlight Comics in 1944. The series was created by Gattuso, who illustrated all ten episodes. Dana Dutch, best remembered for writing romance comics, is known to have written several of the later Black Dwarf tales, but Gattuso may have written some of them himself. We may never know, as Chesler's records are long gone.

"The Black Dwarf" from NUELOW Games contains six stories and all-new roleplaying game material inspired by them from yours truly and Rob Garitta. It's been released with two different covers--check out previews here and here. (It was released with two different covers.)

Here are a couple scenes of the Black Dwarf in action, as well as a few splash pages from the book, as further preview.

Get your copy of "The Black Dwarf" at DriveThruComics by clicking here.