Thursday, December 31, 2009

'Wings of Danger' doesn't fly as high as it should

Wiings of Danger (aka "Dead on Course") (1952)
Starring: Zachary Scott, Naomi Chance, Robert Beatty, Colin Tapley, Arthur Lane and Harold Lang
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A traffic controller for a small freight company (Scott) becomes suspicious when the brother of his girlfriend apparently crashes his plane during a storm. His investigation puts him on the trail of a smuggling operation... and in danger.

"Wings of Danger" is a simple mystery story that tries to be more by piling on convoluted subplots. It's too much for the thin story to bear, and it drifts from point repeatedly and by the time it gets to the end, most viewers won't care. And that's a shame, because the final fifteen minutes or so are really well done (even if the actual ending is a bit pat).

Ultimately, this isn't a bad movie but it could be a lot more. The only thing that really recommends it is the moody cinematography of Terence Fisher. Even the acting is a bit on the weak side, which is unusual for a Fisher film; he usually gets the very best out of his actors.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The monster without a face haunts 'Nightmare Castle'

Nightmare Castle (aka "The Faceless Monster", "Night of the Doomed" and "Lovers From Beyond the Tomb") (1965)
Starring: Barbara Steele, Paul Muller, Lawrence Clift, and Helga Line
Director: Mario Caiano
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After psychopathic 19th century mad scientist Stephen Arrowsmith (Miller) tortures to death his unfaithful wife (Steele), and her lover, he uses her blood and a process he's developed to restore youth and beauty to his own mistress, Solange (Line). He later marries his first wife's mentally unstable half-sister, Jenny (also Steele) to retain control of the fortune that had been willed her... and to ultimately driver her insane and murder her for a fresh supply of blood for Solange's beautification treatments. He even cleverly invites Jenny's long-time doctor, Dereck Joyce (Clift) to stay at the castle, so there will be a witness to Jenny's unfortunate, tragic undoing. But even before Arrowsmith can put his evil schemes into motion, Jenny starts having strange visions and dreams, and Dr. Joyce becomes convinced that some outside force is wrecking havoc on her mind, and that these forces are ghosts haunting the castle. Has the first Mrs. Arrowsmith come back from the dead for revenge, to protect her half-sister, or both? Or is there a more rational answer to the unfolding events?

The above summary of "The Faceless Monster" (more often seen under the title "Nightmare Castle") may sound like its loaded with spoilers, but there's nothing there that doesn't come to light in the first half hour or so of this very creepy gothic horror flick.

Decently acted, well-photographed, decently staged, and full of shocking violence and interesting twists, the film suffers slightly from too leisurely a pace during its middle section, and from a villain whose motivations seem to change more often than most people change their underwear: He's motivated by greed... no, he's motivated by a devotion to science... no, he's motivated by love for Solange... no, he's motivated by spurned love for Muriel, the unfaithful woman he beat, electrocuted, and burned to death... no, he's motivated by... oh, who the hell knows?! Perhaps this is one character where just noting that he's a murderous madman is all the information you need, and it works perfectly, something that is rarely the case in fiction and films. Stephen Arrowsmith appears to be pure evil, and he's evil because he can be, with no need for justification or rationalizations. I still wonder if things in the nightmare castle might not have been a bit more horrifying if Arrowsmith had been better defined.

While Barbara Steele manages to enrich just about every film she's been in, I'm not sure I put as much stock in her dual role as half-sisters Muriel and Jenny as I've seen some reviewers do. The parts reveal the limitation in her talents rather than show her strengths. Steele simply does not have the range and flexibility to change between characters by shifting her facial expressions and gestures, something that's absolutely essential in a film of this kind, with situations like the one Jenny and Muriel are in during the film's second and third acts.

All my complaining aside, "The Faceless Monster"/"Nightmare Castle" is a fine gothic horror movie with a deliciously evil villain and some great ghostly twists (the final 10-15 minutes are truly grand, in a twisted way).

Scum and villainy flourish at the Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn (1939)
Starring: Maureen O'Hara, Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks, and Robert Newton
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When young Mary (O'Hara) comes to live with her relatives on the Cornwall coast, she soon discovers that not only is her uncle Joss (Banks) something of a dirty old man, but he's also the head of a gang of murderous cutthroats who are causing ships to run aground during storms, looting the wrecks, and murdering surviving crewmembers. After Mary saves one of the gang (Newton) from being hanged by the rest, the pair flee to the safety of the local Magistrate, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton). Unfortuantely, Pengallan is a madman who is secretly behind the cutthroats!

"Jamaica Inn" is an excellent thriller set during the late 1700s. It features a great cast, with Maureen O'Hara as the feisty Mary and Leslie Banks as the menacing Joss Merlyn deserving particularly high praise.

The film is tense and moody throughout, and there are some excellent plot and character twists as the film unfolds, but there are couple of elements that keep it from being a truly great movie.

First, there's the bland hero, Trehearn. He's a nice enough fellow, but between the characters of Mary, Joss, and Sir Humphrey, he pretty much fades into nothing.

Second, there's the fact that Sir Humphrey's involvement with the bandits is revealed entirely too early in the film. It may add a bit of tension when Mary convinces Trehearn that they need to go to Sir James for help, but I think revealing the involvement after the pair escape would have been better for the story. (Reportedly, Hitchcock felt this way too; the story only unfolds as it does because Charles Laughton, a big star at the time, wanted his character to be more centrally involved from the outset.) There are still some interesting twists that come out later in the film about Sir Humphrey, but I think they too would have been stronger if not for Laughton's reported ego-trip.

I still think this is an excellent adventure flick, with great camera work, lighting, and sets--the Jamaica Inn set both inside and out is spectacular--and I think it's well-worth seeing if you are a fan of Hitchcock's work.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Beauty From the Mummy's Tomb

In Hammer's "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb," the dead spirit of a long-dead Egyptian princess possesses Valerie Leon and goes on a killing spree. It's rather like the spirit of one year rising to possess the one that follows, to keep the march of time moving forward without pause or mercy. (Okay... maybe not. But here are marketing photos for "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb" from 1971. Two are from a publicity stunt where Leon walked a public street in costume, with a black cat on a leash.)

Click here to read the review of "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb." Warning: It's in color!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Godzilla rampages through the Marvel Universe!

Essential Godzilla, King of Monsters (Marvel Comics, 2006)
Writer: Doug Moench
Aritst: Herb Trimpe, Tom Sutton, Tony DeZuniga, Fred Kida, Dan Green, and Jim Mooney
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Here's one entry in the "Essential" giant black-and-white reprint from Marvel that I've picked up is another one that doesn't really seem all that essential. It collects the 24 issues of "Godzilla, King of Monsters", dating from the late 1970s. It might not be an essential bit of comics story-telling, but it's a fun read.

The volume chronicles the adventures of Godzilla in the Marvel Universe. He emerges from the ocean off Alaska and fights a wide range of giant monsters and trashes several Amercian cities as he makes his way across the United States, until finally squaring off against the Avengers and the Fantastic Four in New York City. Every giant step of the, he is dogged by the Agents of SHIELD in their helicarrier, along with a a Japanese scientist and his grandson, Lttle Rob, who doesn't believe Godzilla is evil, and is constatly trying to convince others of that fact. He's also fights all manner of giant monsters and a cybernetic battle-machine nicknamed Red Ronin.

For those who are familiar with the broader Marvel Universe (or even parts of like, like SHIELD or the Fantastic Four) there are some major plot-holes here and there, but the wildness of Godzilla's adventures more or less make up fot those. (For example, he gets abducted by space aliens in one issue, and gets sent back in time to his "native place" in another.)

Nonetheless, the book is a fun enough read as brainless comics go. The material here will never make anyone's list of "The Greatest Comics EVer Published", but if you like Godzilla movies, I think you'll enjoy the material here. (For the record, when Godzilla trashes Salt Lake City, artist Herbe Trimbe actually drew the city skyline exactly as it appeared in the 70s! He even got the state capitol building in the place! On the downside, the writer and/or editor seemed to think SLC is in Nevada!) This series also has the benefit of being able to make Godzilla look like a genuine, giant radioactivity-breathing monster, as opposed to a guy in a rubber suit.

Miss Marple takes to the stage
in 'Murder Most Foul'

Murder Most Foul (1965)
Starring: Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody, Charles Tingwell, and Stringer Davis
Director: George Pollock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Miss Marple (Rutherford) goes undercover as an actress in a third-rate theatre company to prove a man innocent of murder while catching the real killer by solving a mystery with origins more than 15 years in the past.

"Murder Most Foul" is a fine little murder mystery/comedy that was loosely adapted from Agatha Christie's novel "Mrs. McGinty is Dead". Once again, Margaret Rutherford gives a fantastic performance as the feisty, never-takes-no-for-an-answer Miss Marple. The comedy of the film gets even more pointed when the hammy director of the theatre company (played with great flair by Ron Moody, who is the only actor in the film who manages to be as flamboyant and fun to watch as star Rutherford) casts her as a lady detective in a murder play, so Miss Marple, the amateur detective, is called upon to play an amateur detective while pretending to be an actress.

"Murder Most Foul" is a fun, lighthearted mystery movie featuring a cast with a level of talent that doesn't seem to exist anymore. (The way Ron Moody manages to mix diffused menace with a completely casual attitude, or the way he can deliver a line that shows how his character changes his mood in mid-sentence is a display of craft that we simply don't see in movies anymore.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Now they've gone too far!
Nazis are turning sexy chicks into monsters!

She Demons (1958)
Starring: Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin, Victor Sen-Yung, and Rudolph Anders
Director: Richard Cunha
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

An obnoxious an rich girl (McCalla) and two of her daddy's employees (Griffin and Sen-Yung) are shipwrecked on an uncharted island. They must fight fight for survival against a Nazi mad scientist (Anders) who has harnessed the secret of perpetual motion and is using it and processes he perfected in the WW2 concentration camps to steal the beauty of native island girls (who like all native girls only want to dance) and transferring it to his wife, in the hopes of restoring her fire-ravaged body. The process reduces them to horribly mutated, violent monsters.... you know, She-Demons!

My summary gave away the element that almost earned this film a Four Rating. It's going along likea fairly standard, low-budget castaways-on-a-jungle-island-with-monsters-and-a-hot-babe movie when suddenly Nazis appear on the scene. And they're not just any Nazis... they're led by a mad scientist Nazi who, although his research is dedicated to restoring his wife's beauty (at the expense of a bevvy of hot bikini-babes) he immediately wants to do the horizontal mambo with Aryan beauty Irish McCalla.

That strange turn resulted in this film perhaps being the greatest combo of B-movie/exploitation movie/"grindhouse" movie mainstays ever made. (Uncharted island, jungle inhabited by strange creatures, a mad scientist transforming humans into beasts with his weird experiments, Nazis--sadistic, whip-weilding Nazis no less--a wife with a disfigured face who only Weird Science can restore, wise-crakcing colored sidekick, and exploding volcaones. All this movie needed was a flying saucer, nudity, and lesbian vampires, and it might have been been the Platonic ideal of crappy movies.)

Of course, it would need better acting and something resembling decent dialogue to truly be worth viewing. Only Rudolph Anders as mad scientist Colonel Osler was truly any good, because he went waaay over the top with smariness and superior attitude. Irish McCalla did an okay job, because her character was so obnoxious that I wanted Osler to turn her into a She-Demon because it would shut her up.

On its own, "She-Demons" is not worth your time or money. It might be odd enough to be a secondary feature for a Bad Movie Night, but if you are going to get it, look for a DVD multipack that includes it and one or two movies you know are good. That way, this becomes a "bonus feature", and you've gotten your money's worth.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'His Girl Friday' is a true comedy classic

His Girl Friday (1940)
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy
Director: Howard Hawkes
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

While attempting to score an interview with a man slated for execution the next morning, an unscrupulous newspaper editor (Grant) juggles politics, yellow journalism, and a desperate attempt to prevent his ex-wife and former top reporter (Russell) from marrying an insurance salesman (Bellamy) and quitting the newspaper business.

"His Girl Friday" is a comedy on speed, cocaine, crystal meth, and just about any other upper you can think of. It's crammed wall-to-wall with jokes, gags, and lampooning of crooked politicians and ruthless journalists, and you'll have to watch the movie twice to catch them all, because your laughter will drown out a fifth of them on the first time through.

This is one of the fastest paced movies ever made--it never pauses once it gets going, but speeds along at a mile a minute, with characters always doing two or more things at the same time and several actors usually talking over each other at once. It's a chaotic film--perhaps even a little chaotic for its own good at times--but every joke is funny and every actor featured gives a great, high energy performance. (Russell and Grant are particularly noteworthy. Russell manages to play a character who is as tough as her male counterparts yet is still feminine and sexy, while Grant plays a man who is a complete bastard, but he still keeps the character likable and charming.)

"His Girl Friday" is a true comedy classic that remains relevant nearly seventy years after its first release, because, if anything, politicians and reporters have gotten even more slimy and callous than they were in 1940.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Line' is an interesting thriller marred
by lazy translation

Line (American edition published by ADV Manga, 2006)
Story and Art: Yua Kotegawa
Rating: 6/10

Chiko, a typical high school girl, picks up a lost cell phone. It rings, and the voice on the other end tells her of a gruesome death that only she can stop, one that will happen in just minutes. Chiko ignores the warning, but the death occurs as predicted. More calls follow and the voice on the phone tells her when and where suicides are going to occur, and that she is the only hope of stopping them. Soon, Chiko and her bookish friend Bando are on an all-night quest, rushing all throughout Tokyo to beat the clock and save lives.

"Lines" is an unusual graphic novel that takes the standard thriller premise of the mysterious voice on the phone with a threatening of ambigious message and uses it to tell a suspenseful tale that explores teen angst, the twin dangers of isolation and dehumanization in the internet age, and the risk of being swept along by a thrill-seeking adrenaline rush. It also has a nice thread about how Chiko gains more insight into her self and her life while she attempts to grasp the situation she has been thrust into and why so many kids want to kill themselves.

It's a fast-paced book that doesn't quite manage to maintain the suspense to the end, but it's entertaining enough. Kotegawa's art is crisp--if somewhat generic--art is easy on the eye and makes the story easy to follow.

My biggest complaint with the book is that it's been shoddily translated. It reads from back to front, because ADV was either too lazy or too cheap to either mirror or re-arrange the art so the book flowed according to English langauage and publishing standards. I can't fault them too much, however, because they're simply doing what has become industry standard.

A few years back, some clever executive somewhere decided to market Japanese translations without mirrored art (books that read from right to left as they do when in their original Japanese) as "authentic translations." The foolish consumer bought into it, the publishers took advantage of the cost savings, and now the majority of translations available are lazy and shoddily done.

I don't care that Japanese books are read from right to left. English books are not. The graphic novel imports should be translated properly and the consumers should have demanded that the be so. (At this point, it's too late. Only holdouts like me refuse--for the most part--to spend my good money on lazy work. No one stood up and said that the Emperor was authentically not wearing any clothes... or, if they did, no one paid attention. Marketing once again won out over quality.)

[left]But, my rant aside, if the akward presentation of "Line" doesn't bother you, I think and you enjoy Japanese comics, I think it's a book worth checking out. (It's also might be suitable for that young teen girl in your household who is into mysteries and manga.)

Perfect Wednesday Bonus Picture!

Click on the picture to see it at full size.

Merry Christmas!

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
I van to brihng you prehzants

Yes... that's Bela Lugosi dressed as Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas!

The Best of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

Here are reviews of six classic horror films featuring two of the most iconic actors to ever appear in film--Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. These two men were gifts from God/Fate/Santa to cinema lovers, so I honor them on this day. Two of the selections feature both actors, while the remaining four consist of the two greatest films that each man made solo.

The Best of Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi

The Black Cat (aka "The House of Doom" and "The Vanishing Body") (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Boris Karloff and Jacqueline Wells
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Honeymooners Peter and Joan Allison (Manners and Wells) are stranded in an isolated house in a Hungarian backwater. Here, they become drawn into the evil Satanist Hjaldmar Poelzig (Karloff) and the revenge-plans of his one-time friend Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). As the story unfolds, the depth of Poelzig's evil and perversion is revealed in its fullest, and it seems there will be no escape for anyone.

"The Black Cat" is a stylish, incredibly creepy B-movie. It takes place almost entirely within a house built upon the site of a ruined WWI fortress, with the lower levels being the decaying remains of the original structure and the upper floors consisting of a sleek, ultra-modern home. Both sections of the structure lend to the tone of dread that permeates the entire film--with the well-lit, clean rooms of the upper levels of Poelzig's home being even creepier than that the shadow-haunted lower levels thanks to some fine camera work--although the revelation of Poelzig's "exhibit" of beautiful women below has got to be the most terrifying moment of the film. (In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a more evil and perverted character present anywhere in these classic horror films than Poelzig: Satanism, treachery, mass-murder, pedophelia... you name it, Poelzig's done it/is into it. (Karloff doesn't have a lot to do acting-wise, other than to just be sinister... but, boy, does he do that in spades here!)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is Lugosi. First, those who watch "The Black Cat" will get to see that he was, in fact, a great actor at one time. The pain Dr. Werdegast feels when he is told his wife and daughter died while he languished in a Russian prison is conveyed with incredible strength, as is the mixture of pain and rage when he later learns the truth about their fates, as he and the Allisons manage to seize the initiative from Poelzig and his cultists. Second, it's interesting to see Lugosi playing a hero for once, even if a deeply flawed hero.

On a quirky note, I often complain that horror movies from 30s through the 60s and early 70s often just end: The story resolves and the credits roll without providing the audience with the nicety of a denoument. "The Black Cat" DOES provide what I wish more films would, yet here I almost wish that last minute or so hadn't been included. This is a film that probably should have ended while still in darkness.

While "The Black Cat" has absolutely nothing to do with the Poe tale that "suggested" it--it's got more in common with "The Fall of the House of Usher", I'd say--I think it represents a high point of the horror films that Universal was making in the 30s. I don't see it mentioned often, and I think it's a shame. It's a film that's worth seeing.

The Body Snatcher (1945)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade, Bela Lugosi and Edith Atwater
Director: Robert Wise
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In this loose adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, a young medical student (Russell Wade) becomes drawn into the twisted relationship between a brilliant but coldhearted surgeon (Henry Daniell) and a strange coachman who moonlights as a body snatcher to provide the doctor with research specimens (Boris Karloff).

"The Body Snatcher" is a one-stop spot to discover why producer Val Lewton, actor Boris Karloff and director Robert Wise are held in such high regard by horror movie fans and filmmakers.

Lewton's touch is all over this film, and there is barely a scene that doesn't feature terror technqiues that filmmakers copy and rely on to this very day. Karloff gives one of the very best performances of his career, oozing greasy charm and quiet menace with every word and gesture. And then there's the very chilling scene where he's just choked a man to death, is sitting over the corpse, and then reaches out to stroke his pet cat. And, finally, Wise mounts a brilliantly structured film where the mystery and tension keeps mounting until the end, and every scene is perfectly paced, framed and lit. Much gets said about film noir, but the use of light and shadow in black and white horror films like this one is far more important that in crime dramas, and Wise here Wise uses the medium to perfection.

And, of course, the stars are backed up by an excellent supporting cast, including Bela Lugosi in his final horror role for a major studio. Lugosi's role is small, but he brings a level of raw creepiness to his character, creepiness born more of stupidity than the evil that wafts from Karloff's character.

In retrospect, the fact that Lugosi dies in a very key scene in the film is something of an allegory for his career, as well as Karloff's. In the scene in question, Lugosi ends up dead on the floor and Karloff reaches out to pet a cat in a very creepy moment. This was the second-to-last film Lugosi made for a major studio, and his career and life were mostly a downward spiral from here, while Karloff's career in horror films continued to flourish.

The Best of Bela Lugosi

The Devil Bat (aka "Killer Bats") (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dave O'Brien, and Donald Kerr
Director: Jean Yarborough
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Everyone loves the ever-smiling chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi), especially the investors in the cosmetics company he's been creating best-selling colognes and perfumes for. When the company owners make what they feel is a nice gesture to reward Carruthers' many years of service, he feels like he's been insulted and he decides to kill his bosses and their entire family. Revealing that he's as talented a mad scientist as he is a chemist, Carruthers transforms otherwise harmless bats into giant hunter-killers that hone in on a special cologne that he's given to his victims for "testing." Will Carruthers get away with his bloody schemes, or will a lazy tabloid reporter (O'Brien) and his photographer (Kerr) manage to stumble their way to the truth?

Bela Lugosi in The Killer Bats
That's a long summary, but "The Devil Bat" is pretty convoluted. In fact, it's so convoluted that it's one of those films that you need to just watch without thinking too hard, particularly when it comes to Paul Carruthers, his killer bats, and his rambler house with its secret Mad Scientiest Lab and tower for convenient bat launches.

The film's got a decent cast (with Lugosi being particularly fun to watch) a story with plenty of humor (both intentional and unintentional), and a pace that is just fast enough to keep the viewers interested. It's by no means a masterpiece, and its low, low budget is painfully visible in some of the sets (although the bat effects are better than I expected), but it's a fun bit of viewing if you enjoy Bela Lugosi and the nonsense breed of plup fiction-style sci-fi/horror flicks that filled the B-feature slots at movie houses in the 30s and 40s.

By the way, I highly recommend getting the DVD version of the film that I've linked to below. Not because I recommend watching colorized classics, but because I think it's fascinating to compare a colorized version with the black-and-white version. Invariably, you will discover that colorizing saps a film of life rather than enhances it. (I used to think that it was only dramas that were ruined by colorization. Then I picked up the disc containing both the colorized version and original version of "My Man Godfrey." Actually, watching both versions close together changed my mind completely.)

White Zombie (1932)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Robert Frazer, John Harron, and Joseph Cawthorn
Director: Victor Halperin
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Haitian plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Frazer) becomes obsessed with the beautiful Madeleine (Bellamy), he invites her and her husband-to-be (Harron) to have their marriage and spend their honeymoon at his plantation. When he fails to win Madeleine's heart, he turns to his neighbor, 'Murder' Legendre (Lugosi) and asks him to use his powers to create zombies to recreate Madeleine as his love slave. Will Madeleine's fiance and the local priest (Cawthorn) unmask Legendre's evil and save Madeleine from a fate worse than death, or will they merely become yet another pair of zombies in Legendre's growing force of mindless slaves?

"White Zombie" has been described as the first zombie movie ever made. I don't know if this is true or not, but it is definately one of the best. It predates the flesh-eating blood-spattered cannibal zombies of George Romero, but instead relies upon traditional zombie myths and tales of dark sorcery to generate its chills.

This is a stylishly filmed movie that features creepy performances by Lugosi and Bellamy, and scenes that drip with creepiness, as Legendre's mindless slaves work his sugar mills, and as a ghostly, zombie-fied Madeleine glides silently through the vaulted halls of Legendre' house. (The height of creepiness is reached when the depth of Legendre's evil is fully revealed and he gradually starts turning Charles Beaumont into a zombie as well.)

"White Zombie" is a must-see for fans of classic horror movies in general, and fans of zombie movies in particular. It is the one of the roots from which the horror genre sprang. Heck, the film should be required viewing for anyone who is currently making horror movies... if filmmakers chose to emulate a work like this, maybe we'd have more decent horror movies coming out.

The Best of Boris Karloff

Bedlam (1947)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Anna Lee, Billy House, Richard Fraser, Ian Wolfe and Leyland Hodgson
Director: Mark Robson
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When Nell Bowen (Lee), an actress turned live-in companion and jester for one of London's leading citizens (House) makes it a personal crusade to improve conditions at the Bedlam institution for the insane, she makes a personal enemy of its Apothecary General, Master Sims. She soon discovers that those who Sims feels threatened by end up as inmates at Bedlam, whether they are insane or not.

In "Bedlam," we see Boris Karloff playing the most despicable and evil character he ever portrayed during his career. Master George Sims is a self-centered little man who has achieved some small degree of social standing through toadying and by abusing his position by turning the government-operated asylum and its inmates into a sideshow attraction, complete with admission fees. Although he talks about compassion, it is clear that he has has none, both from his attitude and deeds. Everything within the walls of his asylum are there to boost his fragile ego, and anyone who threatens it from the outside, he brings under his control by having them committed by a board of governors that he has under his sway.

If played by a lesser actor, Master Sims would probably have been a boring character consisting of pure evil covered by a thin veneer of hypocrisy and oily charm. However, Karloff manages to infuse humanity into this monstrous figure, giving Sims a dimension that makes him just sympathetic enough that viewers can appreciate where he's coming from even while recognizing that he is an absolute villain.

One of the key moments for Sims' is when he falls into the hands of the inmates and they put him on trial to determine if insanity drove him to commit all the cruel acts he is responsible for. Without ruining the film, I can say that Sims gives a speech that convinces the inmates that he is indeed sane, because his actions were driven by a hunger for recognition from his betters and a sad hope to be accepted as their equal. But, although Sims seems to be soul-searching and understanding that his behavior is misguided and wrong, it quickly becomes apparent that he will fall back into his old ways, because the only way for him to overcome what is ultimately an unsurmountable degree of self-loathing is for Sims to feel himself bathed in what he considers the reflected light from his "betters."

And it is this reflected light that starts the conflict between Master Sims and Nell Bowen. She not only shows Sims up in front of one of the nobles whose approval he so desperately wants, but she shows herself to be more favored than he when she isn't punished for displaying repeated and open contempt for him. Worse, Bowen doesn't need the approval that Sims devotes his entire life to gaining, so he has no real weapons to weild against her except his ability to force her into his charge and break her spirit and mind.

It is plain to viewers early on that Nell will ultimately end up at Sims mercy, because she refuses to back down, and as the film unfolds, much of the suspense comes from the fact that there seems to be no way out for Nell and that her strong spirit will get her killed. The confrontations between Sims and Nell, which never rise above verbal sparring, are really the heart of the film... and they are scenes that would not work half as well if it wasn't because the lines are being delivered by two great actors whose performances are bringing dimensions to the characters far beyond what would usually be expected from a low-budget drama.

These great performances also lift the film to the point where you're not quite sure what's going to happen... and not just because Val Lewton has delivered films with genuinely suprising endings before (is there anyone who can honestly say they saw the ending of "Cat People" or "I Walked With a Zombie" coming before it hit?), but because the characters have a degree of life to them that doesn't let us assume that the script will follow the pat ending where the heroine is rescued and the dastardly villain gets his just rewards. (And, to some degree, Lewton once again delivers a powerful and unexpected ending, perhaps the creepiest of any of his RKO films.)

Of course, I also need to give some credit to Mark Robson, the film's director. He was an editor at RKO whom Lewton wanted to give a chance to direct, and for whom Lewton passed up the opportunity to work on films with bigger budgets.

After his early hits, RKO execs wanted to give Lewton more money to work with, but it meant that Robson would not have a chance to direct. Lewton chose to stay with the smaller budgets and the B-pictures, showing personal character and a degree of loyalty to his fellow creators that one wishes more people possessed.

And Lewton's faith in Robson was obviously well-placed. While most of Lewton's RKO pictures are lean efforts without a second of filler to be found, "Bedlam" is even tighter than the rest. There is not a single scene that doesn't start or end at just the right moment, and there is not a single shot that isn't perfectly timed or lit.

With the excellent performances from its stars, able assistance from a talented supporting cast, and great direction, camera-work and editing, "Bedlam" is a fine thriller that fans of classic movies should seek out.

"Cat People," "I Walked With a Zombie" and "The 7th Victim" may get most of the commentaries when it comes to Lewton films, while "The Mummy," "Frankenstein" and "Targets" get the accolades in the Karloff canon, but "Bedlam" is a film that deserves more attention from fans and reviewers alike.

The Mummy (1932)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan
Director: Karl Freund
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After an archeologist accidentally restores him to life, a cursed ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep (Karloff) sets about likewise reviving Princess Anckesen-Amon for whom he gave up everything so they can resume their forbidden love. Unfortunately, she has been reincarnated, and her spirit is currently residing within Helen Grosvenor (Johann), the daughter of a British diplomat. Imhotep hasn't let the natural order of things stop him in the past, and he's not about to let it get in his way now.

"The Mummy" is perhaps the best, most intelligent mummy movie ever made. It's more of a gothic romance story set in Egyptian surroundings than a monster movie, with Imphotep trying to recapture a love that he lost 3,700 years ago.

The actors in this film are all perfectly cast, and they are all at the top of their game.

Karloff is spectacular, conveying evil, alieness, majesty, and even a little bit of tragedy in his character with a minimum of movement. (Unlike most mummy movies, Imhotep isn't a bandage-wrapped, shambling creature, but instead appears like a normal human being; he is still dried-out and somewhat fragile physically, though, and Karloff does a fantastic job at conveying this.)

Johann likewise gives a spectacular performance, particularly toward the end of the movie as Imhotep is preparing to make her his eternal bride and she has regained much of her memories from when she Anckesen-Amon. Johann is also just great to look at.

The two remaining stars, Manners and Van Sloan, are better here than anything else I've seen them in. Manners in particular gives a fine performance, rising well above the usual milquetoast, Generic Handsome Hero he usually seems to be. (Even in "Dracula" he comes across as dull. Not so here.)

The cinematography is excellent and the lighting is masterfully done in each scene. Karloff's character is twice as spooky in several scenes due to some almost subliminal effects caused by lighting changes from a medium shot of Manners to a close-up of Karloff... and the scene where Imhotep is going to forcibly turn Helen Grosvener into an undead like himself is made even more dramatic by the shadows playing on the wall behind the two characters.

There are some parts of the film that are muddled, partly due to scenes that were cut from the final release verson, or never filmed. Worst of these is when Imhotep is interrupted during his first attempt at reviving Anckesen-Amon, and he kills a security guard with magic during his escape. However, he leaves behind the spell scroll that he needs for the ritual. Why did he do that? It's a jarring, nonsensical part of the movie that seems to serve no purpose other than to bring Imhotep into direct confrontation with the heroes. (The commentary track on the version of "The Mummy" featured in Universal's "The Mummy Legacy Collection" sheds light on what the INTENTION was with that development, but it just seems sloppy and badly conceived when watching the movie.)

While "The Mummy" may seem a bit slow to people who are used to Brandon Fraser dodging monsters--or even the Hammer mummy movies--it is a film that every cinema buff should see and even add to their personal movie collection.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Hands of a Stranger' is a predictable thriller

SPECIAL NOTICE: When I watched this film and wrote this review in January of 2007, I was on a variety of pain meds due to an accident and subsequent surgery. I've since misplaced my copy of this film, so I have been unable to verify if I was too kind or too harsh on it. Anyone care to set the record straight if I missed the mark?

Hands of a Stranger (1962)
Starring: Paul Lukather, James Stapleton, Joan Harvey, Larry Haddon and Irish McCalla
Director: Newt Arnold
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Vernon Paris (Stapleton) is a brilliant young pianist who is maimed in an accident following the concert that was to be his final stepping stone to classical music stardom. After finding himself unable to save the hands, an unethical surgeon (Lukather) decides to use his experimental transplant technique to graft the hands of an unidentified corpse onto the young man. The operation is a success… but things end far from happily.

“Hands of a Stranger” shares many elements in common with the 1935 chiller “Mad Love," but it is completely devoid of the half-asked metaphysical questions that pop up in its predecessor. The source of the trouble here is never in doubt—it’s a combination of impatience and outright nuttiness on the part of the pianist.

Although thoroughly predictable, populated by nothing but stock characters being portrayed by actors of average talent, and very much full of both Ham and Cheese on multiple occasions, “Hands of a Stranger” nonetheless entertains, because the viewer becomes interested in where Vernon’s madness will take him next. The slow build from melodrama to horror movie is also nicely and smoothly executed, and the film’s pacing and short running time shows that the director at its helm knew how not to outstay his welcome—there’s not a stitch of padding to be found, anywhere.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Powell's last outing as Philo Vance

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
Starring: William Powell, Eugene Pallette, Robert Barrat, Robert McWade, James Lee, Mary Astor, Frank Conroy, Ralph Morgan, Paul Cavanagh, Helen Vison and Jack La Rue
Director: Michael Curtiz
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Archer Coe (Barrat) is found dead in a room locked from the inside, the police assume he killed himself. Celebrated private detective Philo Vance (Powell) believes he was murdered and he proves his suspicions true in fairly short order, even figuring out the solution to the "locked room mystery." But when his prime suspect (Morgan) is also found murdered and everyone else who is even remotely connected to the case had very good reasons to want Coe dead, Vance may for the first time be faced with a mystery he is unable to solve.

"The Kennel Murder Case" is a tale of high society murder that features a mystery so tangled that is bound to keep you guessing up to the very point where Vance tricks the murderer into revealing himself. (In fact, the case is so complicated that if Vance hadn't found another angle of attack by sheer luck after the loss of his first suspect, it might have gone unsolved, or perhaps even more victims would have been claimed by the killer.) It's a film that anyone who enjoys classic mysteries will love very much.

Aside from being an excellent mystery film, it should be of interest to anyone who has enjoyed William Powell as Nick Charles in the Thin Man series. Powell shows that he is just as capable and engaging in the role of a more traditional "consulting detective", including to the point that he is part of the upper-crust society he rubs shoulders with (as opposed to Nick who married his way into it). Vance also solves his crimes sober, and it's interesting to watch Powell play a sober detective who gets by equally on his sharp wit, powers of observation and deduction, and a charming manner that makes him liked even by most criminal types.

"The Kennel Murder Case" is the only William Powell Philo Vance outing that is currently on the market in any format, a reflection of the changing tides of popular culture. In 1933, the Philo Vance character was perhaps more famous than even Sherlock Holmes, but 75 years later, he is all but totally forgotten.

'The Black Raven' is an inn to avoid

The Black Raven (1943)
Starring: George Zucco, Glenn Strange, Noel Madison, Byron Foulger, Wanda McKay, Robert Livingston and Robert Middlemass
Director: Sam Newfield
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The Black Raven Inn has a reputation only slightly more shady than its owner (Zucco), but on one dark and very stormy night, it plays host to more than the usual share of crooks and creeps when someone starts murdering the men and women who have been trapped there because the bridges have been washed out.

"The Black Raven" starts strong, playing like a straight-forward cross between a "dark old house" film and an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. However, by the time the first murder occurs, the movie has already descended into a meandering morass of filler... and when it starts getting good again--right around the time where George Zucco's character begins to show he's more than just a villainous innkeeper who makes his real living by smuggling criminals across the border to Canada--viewers are so bored they hardly notice or care.

Everything about this film is substandard, and it seems pretty clear that most everyone invovled was just there to collect a paycheck... or they're terribly miscast. Zucco, who usually seems to give a movie his all, seems to be sleepwalking through most his scenes, and I don't think Glenn Strange has a comedic bone in his body; he never should have been cast in the role as the comic relief character. Even as a murder mystery the film is fairly lazy (although it does have one minor twist to it, a twist that makes it harder than usual to guess who the killer is because it's someone that is so obvious that the character is dismissed as a suspect in the minds of experienced mystery watchers/readers).This film might be of interest if you're the world's biggest fan of George Zucco, but even then I think you might feel as if you've wasted your time when your done watching it, even at its brief 61-minutes.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Miss Marple is out to sea in 'Murder Ahoy!'

Murder Ahoy (1964)
Starring: Margaret Rutherford, Lionel Jeffries, Stringer Davis, Charles Tingwell, and Nicholas Parsons
Director: George Pollock
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

On the very day Miss Marple (Rutherford) is appointed to the Board of Trustees of a charity that runs a sailing ship where juvenile delinquients are rehabilitated, one of the other boardmembers is murdered. Miss Marple goes onboard the ship to investigate, and more murders follow as she uncovers a tangle of crime on the high seas that Blackbeard would have envied.

"Murder Ahoy" features Agatha Christie's Miss Marple character, but the film isn't based on any of Christie's books. In fact, like so many screen adaptations of literary characters, Miss Marple as she appears here is quite different than the Miss Marple of Christie's novels and short stories. (I think the only similarity is that they're both old spinsters who enjoy knitting. I can't ever imagine the Miss Marple in the books spending the night in jail, or dueling a killer with sabres as she does in this film, but both events fit perfectly with Miss Marple as played by Rutherford, who is more mischevious than prim.)

Although the story and actions of the various criminals and killers don't make a whole lot of sense, and the police are either stupider or lazier than suspension of disbelief can allow for, the film's leads give such fun performances that it hardly matters. Rutherford gives a great performance, but she is ably supported by Lionel Jeffries (as a twitchy ship's captain who is driven up the wall by Miss Marple's nosiness), Charles Tingwell (as a frustrated police inspector who shares the captain's pain), and Stringer Davis (who plays an elderly friend of Miss Marple who becomes her partner in detection and police-annoying). There's also a hilarious running gag with the doctor who is called to inspect the corpses (Parsons) always needing to run off to deliver a baby.("It's always life and death with him," comments a character after one of the doctor's speedy departures.)

There's also some marvelous soundtrack music by Ron Goodman's marverlous score--particularly the bouncy main theme--also plays a large part in making this movie as enjoyable as it is.

While may not have a whole lot to do with Agatha Christie's original Miss Marple character (or anything Christie actually wrote), this is a fun little comedy/mystery film that's worth checking out.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Whistle Stop' is done in by a weak script

Whistle Stop (1946)
Starring: George Raft, Ava Gardner, Victor McLaglan, Tom Conway, and Jorja Curtright
Director: Leonide Moguy
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Mary (Gardner) returns to her home town after two years away, she rekindles a rivalry between Kenny (Raft), a two-bit loser she's always loved, and Lew (Conway), the local hotel owner--and hood-- who has always been in love with her. This time, the rivalry leads to more than just a few thrown punches... this time, it leads to robbery and murder.

"Whistle Stop" feels more like a summary of a story than the actual story. We learn learn next to nothing about the characters other than their most obvious traits (Why does Mary really come back to town? What was she really doing for those two years in Chicago? Why does Lew go to such extreme measures to get even with Kenny... is he really just a bastard?), we learn very little about the deep relationships that exist between them (Why does Gitlo--a resentment-filled employee of Lew, who is played by Victor McLaglan--have such a soft spot for Mary? Has Mary and her family always been the landlords of Kenny's family and is that how they met?). Perhaps if we knew a little more about the characters in the film, the ending would have felt a little less strange.

This is one of those films that's technically well made and features decent performances by all the actors, but which is ultimately undone by a bad script. The end result is okay but unremarkable.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Murder in the Museum' is a smokin' mystery

Murder in the Museum (1934)
Starring: John Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Phyllis Barrington, Donald Kerr, Steve Clemente and Joseph W. Girad
Director: Melville Shyer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a city councilman is murdered while on a fact-finding mission to a local "museum of oddities", the police commisioner (Girard) emerges as the most likely suspect. However, crimebeat reporter Jerry Ross (Herron) sets out to prove his innocence in order to impress tthe commisioners niece (Barrington), a beautiful young lady he's taken an interest in.

"Murder at the Museum" is a nicely executed who-dunnit with an unusual and unpredictable setting of a Skid Row freak show. Everyone in the establishment has a dark history with secrets, but which of the them had enough darkness in their background to murder the holier-than-thou crusading councilman? And how was the crime committed?

In addition to its convincingly drawn seedy sideshow setting, the film is blessed with a fast-moving plot, well-crafted dialogue and a cast of talented actors. The characters are all engaging and interesting and the usual annoying traits of the stock character of the wise-cracking reporter who outsmarts the police are not quite as nerve-grating as they often are, both due to the writing and to the inherent charm of actor John Harron.

There is one odd bit in the film that made me curious about where Monogram Pictures might have received funding for the film. Smoking is a part of every day life, so characters smoking in a film do not cause me to throw hysterical fits the way it does some people, but there's a scene in the film that feels like it should be in a cigarette commercial. It is so strange and so out of place that I can't help but wonder if it's there at the demands of an investor. (I can't really say more about the scene without giving away part of the movie, but if you see the film you'll know exactly what I'm referring to.)

As far as I've been able to determine, "Murder at the Museum" is only available on DVD from Alpha Video, and the print they used had some unfortunate damage to it... like the key couple of seconds missing where a masked killer is throttling the life out of Jerry Ross. It's not unusual for old films from long-gone studios to be in bad shape, but it's something I feel obligated to point out when it disrupts the flow of the story.

Did America start going down hill when ukuleles stopped being cool?

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
Starring: Don Sullivan, Fred Graham, Lisa Simone, Shug Fisher, Don Flournoy and Bob Thompson
Director: Ray Kellogg
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A marauding lizard the size of a battleship starts wrecking trains and eating people in a small Texas town. Can the kindhearted but slightly inept sheriff (Graham) and the clean-cut, hardworking leader of the local gang of teenaged hot-rodders (Sullivan) stop the monster before it's too late? (Well, before it's too late for anyone NOT yet eaten by it.)

No one will mistake "The Giant Gila Monster" for even the "The Giant Claw", but as far as low budget 1950s monster flicks go, it's not that bad. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that it's gotten a bad rap to some extent.

The script and the film's pacing is tighter and the characters better developed than what you find in most films like this. The film gets straight to the point, and it moves through the story steadily until the climax, with no filler or pointless side trips. (Well, other than the three songs performed by our singing teenaged hero while strumming his ukulele. Those could have been shortened somewhat and the film would have been stronger for it.)

Actually, it's the more well-rounded characters that truly set this film apart for others similar to it. There's more to the film than a simple monster bash, as we actually have subplots and characters showing thoughts and emotions beyond what is necessary for a perfunctory monster bashing story. We have the obnoxious rich guy's concern for his missing son and the illustration of how he uses his power in a desperate attempt to locate and control him; we have the almost impossibly clean-cut teenaged hero's efforts to support his family and his polio-stricken sister while still maintaining his hot rod and being the cool kid with his friends AND trying to start a career as a singer; and we have the sheriff who struggles to balance law and order with a self-appointed role as shepherd of the small Texas town he serves.

There's also some very well done miniature sets used to create the illusion of a rampaging giant lizard, sets matched carefully to their real-world counterparts and filmed with great skill. The end result is actually better than what you find in many movies from this period and even up until recent years, prior to the advances in digital animation.

All the good parts of the film can't quite make up for its weaknesses, weaknesses born from the low budget and which are painfully obvious.

There is not a single scene where any character in the film is shown in a shot with the giant lizard--such trick photography or the cost of building a giant lizard tail, paw, or head was clearly beyond the means of director Kellog and his crew. And there is a train-wreck scene that begs to show panicked survivors scrambling away from the monster. Similarly, there are repeated references to nearby oil fields, but the monster never goes and trashes them, another sign of budget constraints, I assume. And these same budget problems lead to a very unimpressive demise for the creature, despite the fact it involves a car crash AND a fiery explosion.

All in all, not a terrible movie, but still one that doesn't quite live up to what it could have been.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A cautionary tale about inviting strangers to stay over

Guest in the House (aka "Satan in Skirts") (1944)
Starring: Anne Baxter and Ralph Bellamy
Director: John Brahm
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Douglas (Bellamy) invites the ill fiance (Baxter) of his brother to spend the summer with him and his family at their house on the New England coast, so the fresh air and relaxation can speed her recovery. The twisted, mentally unstable woman is soon secretly manipulating everyone in the household, turning them against one another, all so she may possess the house and Douglas for herself.

"Guest in the House" is a slow-burn melodrama where the viewers watch one evil, mentally deranged woman gradually destroy the love between members of a happy home (where even the servants and employees are treated as though they are part of the family). Although some of her manipulations are so clumsy and should have been easy for the other characters to see through (and thus the believability of the story is strained a bit), it is engrossing to watch Baxter's character gradually poison the mood in the house and increasingly isolate Douglas from everyone else by sowing doubts and suspicion.

I did find myself wondering, however, if Anne Baxter had more than one facial expression and vocal intonation in her bag of acting tools. It seemed like she wore same expression for most of the film (except for the occasional smile) and it wasn't until the final scenes that she seemed to be doing anything but running lines.

Anne Baxter aside (and it's a big thing to set aside, as she's the film's co-star), the rest of the cast performed nicely. Bellamy seemed slightly miscast, but he played the part as the kindhearted, somewhat oblivious artist, husband, and father. The staging and lighting of the scenes was also nicely done. In fact, it's only the entirely too slow of the movie's first hour that lands the film at the low end of average as far as my rating goes.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Merry Christmas from Kosuke Fujishima

This drawing originally appeared as a splash page for Japanese writer/artist's classic police comedy comic book "You're Under Arrest!"

"You're Under Arrest!" remains my favorite Kosuke Fujishima creation. Sadly, a complete English translation of the series was never published, and I doubt we'll ever see one. If we do, it will be a sloppily done one, since they've long since stopped doing proper translations of Japanese comics. (And a "proper" translation involves mirroring and rearranging the art... English is NOT read from right to left and comic book fans are letting themselves be ripped off by accepting the shoddy and lazy efforts being put forth by publishers. Can't blame the publishers, though... if readers are willing to pay for crap, then that's what they deliver.)

You can read all about the main characters of "You're Under Arrest!" by clicking here. The link goes to a section of my website where I posted an adaptation of the comic book to the "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" roleplaying game system.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Collections of Rumiko Takahashi short stories both delights and dissapoints

Japanese writer/artist Rumiko Takahashi has been referred as the 'Queen of Romantic Comedy.' This is a title that works such as "Ranma 1/2" and "Maison Ikkoku" proves that she richly deserves.

I've referred to Takahashi in articles as one of the greatest living comic book creators in the world. In this post, I review two volumes of short stories where she shows her range as a story-teller, especially when it comes to telling stories that aren't usually presented in the sequential art medium.

Rumic Theatre (American Edition published by Viz Media)
By Rumiko Takahashi
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Rumic Theatre is a collection of six of the finest Rumiko Takahashi stories that I've read so far. As always, the characters are likable and engaging, the tender moments touching, and the comedy top-notch. All of the elements that her fans love are displayed here, but we also find that she is capable of creating far more sedate stories than usually flow from her pen.

All the tales in Rumic Theatre are more down-to-earth than Takahashi's usual output, dealing primarily with the trails and tribulations of everyday people--all of whom are characterized in a believable and three-dimensional fashion--but that typical Takahashi magic is still very clearly evident on every page. What's more, the art in this collection is among the best she's produced.

My personal favorites in this collection are 'The Tragedy of P,' (which revolves around a pet penguin in an apartment building where animals are absolutely not allowed), 'Hidden in the Pottery (where reality, perception, and the dangers of gossip are examined), and 'Extra-large Happiness' (where a young wife sees her future happiness endangered by a gremlin that only she can see). The remaining stories are also of high quality, but the characters and situations in the three mentioned above are the ones that moved me the most.

Even those who don't typically appreciate the 'standard' style of Japanese comics should consider buying this book. If you appreciate the art of comic books for more than just slam-bang superheroics, you won't be dissapointed.

One or Double (American Edition published by Viz Media)

Story and Art: Rumiko Takahashi
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

One or Double is a collection of short tales that don't fit into any of Rumiko Takahashi's ongoing series. Unlike the first volume, which contained mostly recent stories, this one seems to cover a range of years, judging from the art styles. They're not all winners, but over all this book is yet more solid evidence that Takahashi is a master of the graphic story telling medium. Whether you're a fan of "manga" or not, there's no denying that she's a skilled artist and writer who deserves the accolades and success she has enjoyed.

Most of the standout stories in the book are, sports-themed. 'Excuse Me for Being a Dog!,' (a young boxer turns into a dog whenever he gets a bloody nose) 'Winged Victory,' (the tale of a rugby team that's lost 999 games in a row and the ghost who watches over it), 'The Grandfather of All Baseball Games' (a young man plays hardball with his obnoxious grandfather), and the title story (in which a kendo instructor is put in the body of the club's pretty manager) all use sports either as the backdrop or motivation for the story and its characters. The characters in these stories are Takahashi at her most charming.

'The Diet Goddess' (about a girl who buys a dress with the intention of losing enough weight to look good in it) and 'Happy Talk' (about an adoptee who embarks on a search for her biological mother) are two slice-of-life stories ala the majority of the shorts from the first 'Rumic Theater' volume, and the 'Maison Ikkoku' series. Again, Takahashi presents us with charming characters the reader can't help but care about, in stories both funny and touching.

Dissapointments in the book include 'To Grandmother's House We Go' (about a pair of hardluck cases who try to collect the large birthright of a deceased friend for themselves) and 'Reserved Seat' (a curious tale about a rock singer who is haunted by his grandmother and Tarakazuka). The first story is simply too short and it feels rushed on every level--the ending feels particularly unsatifactory--while the second is the only Takahashi story I've read where I felt no sympathy or good will toward any of the characters present in it.

Finally, there's 'Shake Your Bhudda,' a tale that is to very early Takahashi. It's clear she was still mastering her craft when it was created, and there's very little to recommend this tale. In fact, I feel the book might have been better served if it had been left out all together.

Monday, December 14, 2009

If you need help surviving a zombie attack, read on.

In the Event of a Zombie Attack (2008)
Starring: Claire Cassidy, Telisa Steen, Dennis Hoffer, and Nicholas Stender
Director: W.L. Wittstruck
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"In the Event of a Zombie Attack" is a cute short film made up of vignettes designed to look like old education films designed to inform the audience about how to survive should they find themselves in the middle of a "Night of the Living Dead"-type situation.

The first of these shorts features a stereotypical, droning 1950s educational film scientist (portrayed by Claire Cassidy) explaining why flesh-eating zombies exist, how they multiply, and how to avoid being attacked by them. The second has a survialist (portrayed with great zeal by Telisa Steen) explaining the ins and outs and proper etiquette of surviving as society crumbles under the onslaught of zombies. In both of these shorts, a pair of campers appear as object lessons to illustrate the points being made, along with a couple of animated segments drawn by the creator of the concept behind the film, Jeff Freels. All the elements add up to a very funny spoof of educational films and zombie movies alike.

Interspersed during and between the educational segments are advertisements for products from a certain well-diversified large company that may or may not also be the ones responsible for whatever toxic waste it is that is causing zombies to rise. Just because they're an evil megacorp that crossmarkets their cigarette brand during an ad their Zombie Chunks kid's cereal doesn't mean their sponsorship of the "In the Event of a Zombie Attack" educational films means anything other than their being responsible members of the community! (The ads for the various Ziggurat Chemicals products are almost funnier than the main features themselves.)

All the various bits that make up "In the Event of a Zombie Attack" add up to a unique and amusing viewing experience. Plus, the film conveys some very important information. (My favorite zombie survival tip? "Decent, Respectable Grooming Habits May Just Save Your Life!")

For more information about this film and tips on how YOU can survive a zombie attack, visit the website by clicking here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

'The Glass Tomb' isn't worth visiting

The Glass Tomb (1955)
Starring: John Ireland, Eric Pohlman, Geoffrey Keen, Sidney Taffler, Lian Redmond, Honor Blackman and Sid James
Director: Montgomery Tulley
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A sideshow promoter (Ireland) comes under suspicion of being a killer-for-hire when the lover of a backer of his latest show is murdered. He is eventually cleared... but only because other murders occurr.

"The Glass Tomb" is a movie that feels like its script was the product of the writer combining material cut from other projects and then spending an afternoon or two doing some half-assed rewrites in an attempt to make a coherent whole.

It swings back and forth between being a thriller and a murder mystery. Is it a thriller about an innocent man caught in a love triangle he's not even aware of? Is it a thriller/mystery about an innocent man being set up by his best friend to take the fall for a murder he's planned? Is it a murder mystery about why third-rate British carnies and dance hall performers are being whacked?

Although the murderer's identity is revealed to the audience about halfway through the movie, some of the scenes proceed as if the murderer's ID is still supposed to be a surprise to us. (And even if we HADN'T known the killer's ID, the characters should have figured it well before we did, because it's not that hard if anyone in the film had been immune from Stupid Character Syndrome.)

"The Glass Tomb" has the further problem that none of the characters are well-developed enough for the viewer to feel particularly attached to anyone, nor even fully understand what role they play in the story. This causes the film to completely fail as a thriller and to fizzle as even a Columbo-esque mystery. This underdevelopment of characters is perhaps the film's greatest flaw, particularly when it comes to the central character and his family. He seems very interested in keeping them separate from his showbusiness and circus life, yet we never fully understand why. A little more insight in this area in particular could have helped up the tension when his wife comes under threat.

There are actually plenty of good story ideas in "The Glass Tomb". If only the writer, producers and directors had picked one or two of them to focus on and left the rest for other projects, this might have been a decent film. As it is, it's a film that even the most ardent genre fan can ignore.

Should have been titled
'Ring of Terminal Boredom'

Ring of Terror (1963)
Starring: George E. Mather, Esther Furst, Norman Ollsted, Lomax Study and Austin Green
Director: Clark L. Paylow
Rating: 0 of Ten Stars

A dippy graveyard caretaker (Green) relates a deadly dull tale of a medical student (Mather) who experiences the ultimate terror... and offers the viewers the experience of ultimate boredom.

"Ring of Terror" is a film with NOTHING to recommend it. From its cast of "college students" (who are being played by actors in their late 30s or early 40s, yet who are talking and acting as though they are in the late teens or early 20s, and thus making the viewer feel deeply embarrassed on their behalf... the lover's lane make-out scene is particuarly painful) to the utter lack of talent shown by anyone in the film's cast or crew, there is simply nothing good here. It's as if a group of actors whose career pinnacle had been roles in those lame public health/educational films from the 50s wrote a script outline on a napkin from the strip-club they were working at, rented a camera, and ad-libbed an atrocity of movie-making.

I've seen better acting at the first rehearsals for high school plays, and I've written better stories on a moment's notice. Don't waste your time with this one.

If you want to check out this movie just to verify I'm not exaggerating, I suggest you get the DVD multipack I've linked to below. That way, you're not out much cash AND you've gotten yourself a couple of decent films at the same time.

Trivia: Director Clark Paylow was an associate producer on Steven Spielberg's hit sci-fi film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

'Murder on the Campus' is a mostly
well-executed who-dunnit

Murder on the Campus (1933)
Starring: Charles Starrett, Shirley Grey, Edward Van Sloan, Ruth Hall, and J. Farrell MacDonald
Director: Richard Thorpe
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a student is found shot to death high atop a locked bell tower at the center of a busy college campus, ace reporter Bill Bartlett (Starrett) is intrigued, but still thinks it's just another story. When his girl friend Lillian (Grey) emerges as the only suspect, however, he joins forces with criminologist and science professor Edwen Hawley (Van Sloan) to solve this perfect murder and find the real culprit.

After a shakey start (with some pretty lame acting by Starrett and Grey), "Murder on the Campus" comes together as a fine little murder mystery. It is particularly excellent, because it's one of those films that "plays fair" with the audience--if you're paying attention while watching, you can figure out Whodunnit as the hero does, perhaps even before.

Mostly decently acted and well-written, this film is a nice little gem that I recommend to fans of classic mysteries. The ending isn't quite what I would have expected--nor does it sit completely well with me--but it's in keeping with the rest of the film, so it's not all bad. (I guess this means that the film has a strong main body that starts and ends weakly. Still, it's worth checking out.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lugosi serves as a red herring in 'Night Monster'

Night Monster (aka "House of Mystery")
Starring: Don Porter, Irene Hervey, Ralph Morgan, Doris Lloyd, Fay Helm, Leif Erickson, Bela Lugosi, Robert Homans, Nils Asther Francis Pierlot, Frank Reicher, Lionel Atwill and Janet Shaw
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wealthy, embittered cripple (Morgan) invites the doctors he blames for his state (Atwill, Peirlot and Reicher) to his mansion in order to witness the miracle he hopes will cure him: A swami (Asther) has discovered a way to use mindpower to materialize matter from thin air, and he believes this method can be used to give him new limbs. Other house-guests include a mystery writer friend to the crippled man(Porter) and a psychologist (Hervey) visiting to help his troubled younger sister (Helm) with her mental problems. When a murderer that seems to materialize and dematerialize at will starts killing members of the household staff and guests, everyone one and anyone can be the next victim... or possibly even the killer.

"Night Monster" is a mystery film with horror overtones that is as crowded with plots as it is with characters. The writers and director do a better job keeping all the threads flowing than is the case in many films similar to this, making good use of all characters and managing to not tangle the plots too badly. The filmmakers even manage to throw in enough red herrings and plausible suspects that the true nature and identity of the killer isn't certain to viewers until the Big Reveal at the end of the movie. (The only suspect that never seems likely is the bulter played by Bela Lugosi, even if I'm sure the director was expecting viewers to automatically assume he was nefarious because it's Bela Lugosi.)

The film is also impressive for the dark mood that pervades it. While there are a couple of "comic relief characters" in the film, they are more subdued than is often the case if movies of this vintage, and their buffoonery is deployed to augment the darkness of the film rather than dispel or undermine it... like where they find the body of one of the victims. The expressions of cowardice are comical, but they enhance the grim mood of the film rather than lighten it.

Each of the murders (or close brushes with the killer) are also very expertly presented. As is to be expected, we never see any actual killings, or even dead bodies, but we don't need to because the scenes are so expertly staged. Even more powerful is when the mysterious killer prowls the marshes around the mansion--the otherwise ever-present sound of croaking frogs suddenly ceases. The silence is even more unnerving than the screams of the victim that soon follow.

This is not a perfect film, however, and the filmmakers don't quite manage to keep all the balls in the air for its full running time, as they stumble badly when it comes to the third act. As it comes to its fiery conclusion, the filmmakers start to lose track of the characters and subplots, with Bela Lugosi's character vanishing from the scene entirely and a bit of involvement of the deus ex machina that makes the attentive viewer wonder why a certain character could have let things get so far out of hand and/or didn't speak up sooner. However, these are problems that won't come to mind until after the film is over, and until they do, you will be in for a very enjoyable ride.

Reportedly, Alfred Hitchcock believed "Night Monster" was an important film as it was being made. If he was basing his opinion on footage as it was assembled into the final product, I can see why he might say that. It is a film made up of some very finely crafted parts, even if there ultimately seems to be a piece or two missing.

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