Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Doctor X Double Feature

Doctor X (1932)
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and and Lee Taylor
Director: Michael Courtiz
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A killer is stalking Gotham, butchering women--young and old--with a scalpel and surgeon-like precision. When the police turn their investigation toward the medical research institute operated by Dr. Xavier (Atwill), he hopes to prevent the entire institute from being tarred by scandal by conducting a scientific experiment that will identify the killer on his staff. With the moral support of his beautiful daughter (Wray) and a wisecracking crime-beat reporter (Taylor) standing by for the scoop of the decade, Xavier brings his colleagues to his isolated country house... where the murderer soon proves himself quite unwilling to submit to Xavier's experiments, but not so shy about stabbing the house guests.

"Doctor X" is a fun little film that mixes the mystery, comedy, romance, and horror genres into a bubbling cauldron of craziness. From the collection of four surgeons at Xavier's institute, each more suspicious and apparently crazy than the one before; to Xavier's creepy butler; to Xavier himself, the cast of characters here provide a rich pool of suspects. Wray and Taylor offer something attractive to look at amidst the strange collection of doctors and the bizarre, shadow-haunted scenery of the picture, with Wray presenting both radiant beauty and a very charming, very smart character. (In fact, Wray's beauty surrounded by the calculated ugliness of the rest of the film is a contrast that heightens just about every aspect of the film.

Something that will strike viewers coming to this film without foreknowledge--as I did--will be struck by the fact that instead of the expected greys and blacks, the film appears to be in sepia tones... until Wray makes her first appearance on screen, wearing a dress that's a startling, vibrant green in among the shadows and reddish-brown tones of the majority of the scenery. Later, there are other splashes of red and green; "Doctor X" was shot in an early version of Techicolor, and, while I found the reddish and/or greenish tint that was cast over everything generally tiresome, the bright splashes of concentrated color wow'ed me every time they appeared.

As a historical artifact in the development of film techniques, or just as a fun little comedy/thriller that's crammed to the brim with mad scientists, "Doctor X" is a movie that I think any lover of classic films will enjoy immensely.

The Return of Doctor X (1939)
Starring: Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, and Humphrey Bogart
Director: Vincent Sherman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After being fired from his job for making up a false news story about finding a famous actress murdered--who shows up quite alive and intent on suing the paper--journalist Walter Garnett (Morris) turns to a close friend and surgeon (Morgan) in an attempt to figure out how he could have mistaken a live woman for a dead body. The answer he finds is stranger than anything he could imagine, and he soon finds himself up to his neck in creepy MDs, including the strange Dr. Quense (Bogart).

"The Return of Doctor X" has nothing in common with the original "Doctor X" film, except that they were produced by the same company. There is no character or story similarity, despite the presence of murderous medical professionals and a character with the last name of "Xavier", as well as a wise-cracking reporter character. However, where "Doctor X" was a comedy with heavy doses of suspense and a touch of horror, "The Return" is a straight-forward horror movie with a heavy dose of comedy. The first movie was also far more impressive in its camerawork and set design, and this film, while competently filmed, suffers greatly by comparison.

This is a decent enough flick, if completely forgettable. Big-time Humphrey Bogart fans may get a kick out of seeing him in a role quite different from anything else he did during his career, but otherwise, this is the kind of movie to load in a multi-disk DVD player for use as background noise during a Halloween party.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lugosi is the dark, beating heart of 'The Invisible Ghost'

Invisible Ghost (aka "The Phantom Killer") (1941)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Clarence Muse, John McGuire, and Polly Ann Young
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Charles Kessler (Lugosi) is a widely admired man who, known only to his faithful manservant Evans (Muse) and his daughter Virginia (Young) suffers minor bouts with insanity during which he thinks he is still living with his beloved wife, who vanished years ago. However, Kessler's insanity is far deeper and far deadlier than anyone imagines; his wife seemingly appears outside his window at night, and the sight of her sends him into a trance during which he committs horrendous strangulation murders. When Virginia's fiance (McGuire) is executed for one of the murders, his twin brother Paul (also McGuire) arrives in town intent on finding the true killer.

"The Invisible Ghost" is another one of those films where I can see lots of potential that buried under a badly written script. The idea of a decent man so filled with grief and rage that he goes into murderous trances is pretty neat, but in this case the question of exactly how crazy Kessler is undermind within the first ten minutes of the film. (There's a "big revelation" that should have been saved for much later on.) Further, the dialogue (and its delivery) feels more suitable for a stage play than a movie... and it's delivered by actors whose performances mostly leave a lot to be desired.

The two exceptions to my negative comments about the actors are Clarence Muse and Bela Lugosi.

In the case of Muse, he plays Kessler's butler and manservant, but he projects an intelligence, dignity, and sensitivity that is lacking in just about every other character in the film; he's also the one actor who never comes across as unintentionally funny in the film... his laugh lines are true laugh lines, and they're delivered with excellent timing.

Lugosi also gives an engaging performance. Although the man seemed to lack the ability to pick decent projects to perform in, he often managed to make the most of the roles he did. In this case, he shows his acting ability by going through several emotions, and even completely transforming himself by doing nothing but changing his facial expressions. On the downside of his performance in "The Invisible Ghost", Lugosi is unintentionally HILARIOUS when Kessler enters his murderous trances. It takes some of the horror and tragedy away from the story when giggling viewers are trying to decide what Kessler resembles most in his murderous state: Kharis the Mummy without his bandages, or a spastic retard shuffling home after riding the short bus.

One strong aspect of the film that I must mention is that it is beautifully lit. The technical crew who worked on it really knew their stuff--the many candle-lit scenes are very well-handled with spotlights that properly follow the actors carrying the candleholders, and lighting is used consistently with great effect to underscore the drama and tension. Further, there's some very creative camerawork on display. (On the downside, the drama and tension is undermind by a truly awful score and the aforementioned bad acting.)

I think "The Invisible Ghost" is worth watching for Muse and Lugosi's performances, but the bad definately outweighs the good.

Three horror greats and a novelty band in a time capsule

You'll Find Out (aka "Wild Wild Spookhouse") (1940)
Starring: Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, Dennis O'Keefe, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, M.A. Bogue, Helen Parrish and Ginny Simms
Director: David Butler
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Kay Kyser (Keyser) and the wacky musicians and singers that make up his orchestra are booked to play at the 21st birthday party of their manager's heiress girlfriend (Parrish). Swing music, high-jinx, and attempted murder follow as Keyser must team with a renowned debunker of psychics also invited to the party (Lorre) who has also been invited to the event in order to reveal the true nature of a phoney spiritualist (Lugosi), who has been bleeding money from the young lady's gullable guardian.

"You'll Find Out" is interesting viewing for two reasons.

First of all, it's the only film where Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre appear together. The three actors don't have alot of screen time, but their parts are meaty and they get to show their best sides; even Lugosi has a decent part, something that was becoming increasingly rare for him at this point. (In a meta-critical sense, their appearance is an almost Three Fates and/or The Stages of Man sort of affair--Lorre is on the verge of acheiving super-stardom, Karloff is at the pinnacle of his career, and Lugosi is slipping from twilight and into darkness.)

Second, it's an example of the fleeting nature of fame. While Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre have some presence in the minds of virtually every movie fan--even if their names might be a bit vague--how many know who Kay Kyser is? And this despite the fact that Kay Kyser was every bit as big a star as Karloff and Lugosi in his time, the leader of a very popular novelty band that had numerous Billboard-charting hit records, was the centerpiece of their own weekly network radio show, and starred in seven movies, including this one. Some 65 years after retiring from show business during World War II, Kyser and his band are completely forgotten by all. You can watch this movie to see what place Slim Shadey will hold in the public conciousness in sixty years... not to mention what "8 Miles" will look and sound like.

As for the film itself, it's more corny than suspenseful, which is fitting given that it was not a vehicle for the three horror actors but for Kyser's orchestra. Some viewers might be dissapointed at this, but I've always enjoyed Bela Lugosi's comedic turns. Lorre also has some very funny scenes with Kyser, sometimes being the straight man, sometimes being the deliverer of the jokes... and doing an equally good job in either role. (You may notice by now that I've not said much about Karloff. That's because there isn't much to say. He plays a dignified, slightly sinister lawyer and he delivers his lines on cue. It's a decent part and it's key to the story, but there's not much else to say other than, "Look... Boris Karloff!"

Is "You'll Find Out" a classic? No, "Ghostbreakers" this is not. However, it holds up a little better than many other pieces of disposable cinema made for no purpose other than to cash in on a cross-marketing opportunity of a musician.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Greatest chiller of the silent movie era?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover
Director: Robert Weine
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A sideshow performer (Krauss) and an eternal sleeper with prophetic powers (Veidt) engulf a small town in a wave of nightmarish terror and death.

Anyone who's taken a film history class has almost certainly seen "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". If you haven't seen it, and if you consider yourself a fan of horror movies, or a movie buff in general, you absolutely must see this movie. It is one of the most chilling horror movies ever made.

It might be a bit slow in the wind-up from the point of view of the modern audience, and you might be a bit amused by the Dr. Suess-like set design of the village in which the movie takes place... but you'll soon be rivited by the stark moods this film invokes through the sharp use of contrasts, the spooky appearance of the actors, and the brilliantly concieved sets. Dr. Suess will be very far from your mind, unless you want to view the film as "Horton Has a Psychotic Break and Hallucinates."

Although dating from 1919, this film still stands nearly unmatched it its ability to draw the audience into a disturbing, twisted world where ultimately nothing can be taken for granted or assumed to be true. And, depending on how you choose to interpert the very effective twist ending, it may well be a world from which there is no escape.

Every filmmaker has certainly seen this movie. It's too bad so few of them seem to have taken away any lessons from it.

'Essential Tales of the Zombie' is an accurate title for a fine collection of comics

Essential Tales of the Zombie (Marvel Comics, 2007)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, Chris Claremont,
Artists: Pablo Marcos, Alfredo Alcala, John Buscema, Bill Everett, Gene Colan,
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"Essential Tales of the Zombie" is one of an ongoing series of 500-page+ collections of reprinted material from the past 30-40 years of Marvel Comics' output. The material in this book originally appeared in some of Marvel's black-and-white magazines from the mid-Seventies. It presents dozens of tales of voodoo and walking dead, the majority of them taken from the 10-issue run of "Tales of Zombie." Also sprinkled throughout the book are some of the best text features from the magazine, such as reviews of zombie movies and articles about voodoo.

It should be noted that nowhere in "Essential Tales of the Zombie" will you find walking corpses of the flesh-eating, post-Romero kind. The undead here are mostly the result of voodoo curses and similar magics. For me, this classic feel is refreshing in this day and age of rampant splatter and dismemberment.

The most worthwhile material in the book is the ongoing saga of the Zombie from the title. It's the story of Simon Garth, a captain of industry and control freak, who is murdered and reanimated as a zombie. Painfully aware of his condition, yet helpless to do anything about it, he becomes the undead slave of a series of different masters, controlled by the mystical Medallions of Damballah.

The stories of Simon Garth are top-notch, classic horror comics, which is not surprising, given they were penned by Steve Gerber when he was at the height of his creative powers. The manage to present social commentary, tragedy, chills, and poetic justice to the bad guys, often-times within the confines of the same story. The narration may get a bit purple at times, but the power of the stories shine through. Plus, the two-part tale that sees Simon Garth finally gain the peace of the grave is an excellent bit of writing by Gerber's successor on the strip, Tony Isabella. It is a perfect end to the story of a man who was forced onto a journey of discovery and redemption.

Although Bill Everett and John Buscema drew the first three tales featuring the Zombie, the art on the Simon Garth saga is mostly by Pablo Marcos. Alfredo Alcala also handles the art on a couple of the stories. Despite the vast difference in styles between these four artists, the mood remains consistently oppressive, dark, and spooky, and all do a great job capturing the macabre atmosphere of the Louisiana swamps and Haitian back-woods that the Zombie spends most of his time. (Alcala, Buscema, and Everett happen to be three of my favorite artists, and they do fine work here.)

Aside from the stories chronicalling Simon Garth's journey, "Tales of the Zombie" contains two stories with Brother Voodoo (a superhero who, as his name implies, gains his powers from voodoo rites) and a couple dozen short horror stories. The Brother Voodoo stories are... well, they're Brother Voodoo stories. The character always seemed a bit goofy to me, and he's true to from in both stories. (One wraps up the plotline from his "Strange Tales" appearances, and it was nice to finally know how that all ended, but the character still doesn't do much for me.) The shorts are mostly your standard twist-ending sort of tales that have been around in comics since the 50s... the ones that once filled the pages of "Creepy", "House of Mystery" and "Psycho". Althoguh they are all excellently written and illustrated, these run the gamut of quality from ho-hum to masterful.

Rounding out the book is an interesting time capsule of table of contents from each issue of "Tales of the Zombie", selected text pieces about voodoo and the occult, a two-part short story from Doug Moench, and some reviews of movies featuring zombies. The movie reviews were of particular interest to me (big surprise there, eh?) and there were even a few mentioned that I hadn't heard of! These magazine articles made for surprsingly good reading... although I wished a few more of had been included. I would have liked to read the obit of Bill Everett that was mentioned on one of the ToCs.)

"Tales of the Zombie" is an unusual entry in the "Essential" series, but one that lives up to its title. Fans of horror comics won't regret spending money on this one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Frankenstein returns to monster-making
in the far-away future of... 1970!

Frankenstein 1970
Starring: Boris Karloff, Don Berry, Rudolph Anders, Jana Lund, Charlotte Austin, Tom Duggan and Norbert Schiller
Director: Howard W. Koch
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As his family fortune runs out, an aging and disfigured Baron Frankenstein (Karloff)gives a brash TV producer (Berry) permission to shoot a monster movie in and around his castle. However, when he improves upon his forebears old monster-making ways with atomic technology, the television crew and actors become an easy source of body parts.

"Frankenstein 1970" was made to cash in on the revived interest in the classic monsters generated by the beautiful color horror films from Hammer, most notably "Curse of Frankenstein." While it opens with great promise--with a shambling monster chasing a buxom peasant lass into a pond and then drowning her in what is one of the most intense openings to any monster movie of this vintage--it quickly starts showing its extreme low-budget roots, as well as settling into a pace that is just a little too slow for its own good.

That's not to say the film doesn't have some great moments, like the scene where lead camera man and the starlet are setting up a shot in the crypts under the castle while the monster lurks in the shadows, the scene when the Baron talks about what happened to an inquisitive commander in the Nazi concentration camp where he was tortured during the war, and the scene where the monster claims its first victim. But the material between these moments is a little drab and run-of-the-mill. Nothing is terribly bad, but, on the same note, nothing is exceptionally good.

Among the cast, Karloff is definitely the best, but there isn't anyone here who doesn't do a decent job. Karloff once again manages to take a sneering, leering character and imbue a little touch of humanity into him, with the Baron initially coming across as somewhat sympathetic. (Our sympathy for him quickly evaporates as he reveals himself to be utterly evil and homicidally insane.)

Although... as much as we recognize Baron Frankenstein's evil, we can't help but appreciate that he has created a monster that is disposing of some thoroughly annoying film industry stereotypes. We can also appreciate the Baron's frustration when the monster accidentally kills the one non-annoying member of the production crew.

A flawed, but still entertaining movie, it's a relatively obscure Karloff outing that makes the "Karloff and Lugosi Horror Classics" four-movie DVD collection worth the asking price almost by itself. It is also a great chance for Karloff and Frankenstein fans to see him play a Frankenstein instead of a Monster of Frankenstein.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

'The Corpse Vanishes' will make you appreciate your family

The Corpse Vanishes (aka "The Case of the Missing Brides") (1942)
Starring: Luana Walters, Bela Lugosi, Elizabeth Russell and Angelo
Director: Wallace Fox
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Certifiable madman and scientific genius Prof. Lorenz (Lugosi) is placing beautiful, virgin brides into deathlike states at the altar with specially created orchids. He then steals the bodies and drains glandular fluids from them to create a concoction that keeps is even crazier wife looking youthful. His scientific fountain of youth is threatened when society columnist and wanna-be hardnosed reporter Patricia Hunter (Walters) grows suspicious and pays him a visit at his isolated home. Will she bring in the scoop of the year, or will she herself become a victim?

"The Corpse Vanishes" is a pretty standard mad scientist vs. plucky girl reporter lightweight horror movie... except for the bizarre group of characters that make up Lorenz's household.

From Lorenz's wife (who sleeps in a coffin for no apparent reason) to the house-keeper (a doomsaying withered old hag), her bestial son (who likes fondling the comotose brides Lorenz brings home, not to mention our heroine when she stays the night at the house), to her midget son (who serves as valet, butler, and Lorenz's chief henchman), to Lorenz himself (who at one moment refers to them as his "strange family" and the next moment is threatening to kill them... not to mention the whole abducting of brides thing), this is the weirdest household this side of the Manson Family.

No matter how freaky your family is, if you watch this film before going to celebrate a holiday with them, you will be able to say to yourself, "Eh... they could be worse."

Aside from the Lorenz household, everything else is pretty much stock here--including our heroine and the bland love interest she picks up--but the fast-paced story keeps things lively and moving.

Lugosi gives a standard performance. Although he has quite a bit of screen time, he doesn't have alot do to, except to be a centerpiece around which other, stranger characters orbit.

Top talent, bargain-basement comedy and thrills in 'The Black Cat'

The Black Cat (1941)
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Hugh Herbert, Anne Gwynne, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Gladys Cooper and Bela Lugosi
Director: Albert S. Rogell
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When one of greedy relatives on an unpleasant--but exceedingly wealthy--old woman decides to help her into the grave through murder, it's up to a family friend and greasy real estate broker (Crawford) to unmaks the killer. But he better hurry, because it's a dark and stormy night, and the killer has more lives to claim....

Universal sure does love to throw random films into their DVD collections. In the marketed-as-a-horror-films "Boris Karloff Collection" there was the light mystery "The Night Key" and the historical drama "Tower of London," while the "Universal Horror: Classic Archive" features "The Black Cat." Sure, the film includes horror film regulars like Basil Rathbone, Anne Gwynn and Bela Lugosi, but it is actually a comedy that spoofs the Dark Old House genre that flourished in the early 1930s.

"The Black Cat" was the second film that the famous Poe short story "suggested" to Universal Pictures. It has more in common with the source material than the 1934 picture the story "suggested"--this one at least features a black cat that ends up unmasking a killer with its yowling--but it's nowhere near as good.

As comedies go, it's below average. The behavior of the comic characters--a real estate agent played by Broderick Crawford and a dishonested and scatterbrained dealer of antiques played by Hugh Herbert--is rarely all that funny, although the comparisons I've seen made to Abbott and Costello are unfair. Crawford's more-often-than-not straight man is far more respectable than most characters portrayed by Abbott, and Herbert's "Costello imitation" is more a reflection of the fact that both men started their carrers as comedians on the Vaudeville stage. It's not that Crawford and Herbert are ripping anyone off that viewers should be upset with, it's that they have such poor material and badly written lines to work with.

The overall thrust of the story is decent enough, although it is full of logic holes. I have the senese that someone, somewhere said, "Screw it... it's a comedy being made to just fill the release schedule; who cares the story doen't hang together?"

So, as is always the case when producers don't bother to get the foundation fo their film solid, we end up with an end product that is little more than a waste of talent and time. We have a comedy that's only mildly funny, featuring a mystery that's badly put together because the writers didn't put enough tought into it, and a film that squanders great talent like Rathbone, Gwynn and Lugosi.

In fact, no one is wasted more in this picture than Lugosi. He is relegated to a small and pointless role as the Italian groundskeeper, a role so small and pointless that he doesn't get to show his talent for dramatic or comedic acting. In fact, the role is so pointless that I think not even Lugosi took it seriously--or if he did, he added an attempt to do an Italian accent on top of his Hungarian one late in the shooting schedule because his accent is inconsistent between scenes. It has been written that Universal executives either did not respect Lugosi or didn't know what to do with him... and it's films like this that prove the truth of that. I still have to see one or two of Lugosi's Universal films, but this one has got to be close to the low point of his appearances in them.

That said, Gale Sondergaard does play one of the creepiest house keepers to ever grace the silver screen. Also, the scenes leading up to the end after the murderer has been revealed are very suspenseful and well paced. One can also add that the film is fast-paced, so no matter how dumb it gets at times, it never gets boring.

'Horror Hotel' has lots of amosphere but few sparks

Horror Hotel (aka "City of the Dead") (1960)
Starring: Venetia Stevenson, Christopher Lee, and Patricia Jessel
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Nan (Stevenson) decides to spend her Winter Break working on a research project involving witches, her professor (Lee) urges her to travel to a small New England village that has a rich history of witchcraft. Once there, she discovers that the fog-bound hamlet is crawling with evil witches and Satanists (both alive and undead).

"Horror Hotel" has a few nice scares, a couple of genuinely chilling moments, and nice performances by its stars (with Jessel being particularly excellent in a dual role as innkeeper and evil undead witch), but the most constant feature of the film is tedium. The fog-shrouded village and its decaying cemetary are rich with atmosphere, but the pay-offs of that atmosphere are too few, and I often felt myself wishing that the film would get on with it.

In final analysis, "Horror Hotel" is a fabulously atmospheric movie, but the filmmakers are then unable to fully capitalize on that atmosphere.

'The Monster Walks' is a mediocre early talkie

The Monster Walks (1932)
Starring: Rex Lease, Sidney Bracy, Mischa Auer, Vera Reynolds and Willie Best ("Sleep 'n' Eat")
Director: Frank Strayer
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

The night following the death of Earlton Manor's master, those gathered for the reading of his will are menaced by a killer who seems to move unseen through the sprawling house's shadow-filled rooms. Will Dr. Clayton (Lease) discover the identity of the killer in time to save the prime target, his fiance, Ruth (Reynolds)?

A slightly dull example of the "Dark Old House" mystery films that flourished in the early days of the talkies, "The Monster Walks" has a couple of respectable twists and tense moments. It's not the strongest example of this faded film sub-genre, but it's decent enough.

I wonder: Is this one of the first examples of an ape being the possible killer in a mystery film? It seems like by the late 30s, every fourth low-budget thriller or comedy featured an ape (or a guy in a gorilla suit). Is this where the trend started? (One of the sources of dread of the film is a large, violent chimp that's kept in a cage in the house's basement.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Two Faces of Vampirella

One of the most longest lasting icons of horror is the comic book character Vampirella. She may have fallen on hard times of late--with publisher Harris instituting all sorts of arbitrary changes in a desperate attempt to reverse the trend of ever-dwindling sales figures--but some things stay pretty much the same.

Here's a drawing of Vampirella by the first artist to ever paint her 40 years ago, for the cover of "Vampirella" issue #1 in 1969, Frank Frazetta.

And here's a drawing by one of the artist who has painted some of the most celebrated modern portraits of her, Joe Jusko.

Happy 40th birthday, Vampirella! You don't look a day over 28!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

'X the Unknown' is the dirtiest radioactive monster of all!

X: The Unknown (1956)
Starring: Dean Jagger, Leo McKern, Michael Ripper, Edward Chapman, John Harvey, William Lucas, Ian MacNaughton, and Anthony Newley
Directors: Leslie Norman and Joseph Losey
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A routine military exercise on the Scottish moors brings draws forth a mysterious, formless mud-creature from the depths of the Earth. Research scientist Adam Royston (Jagger) and an assortment of law enforcement and military personnel work to discover the nature of the creature and figure out how to stop it, even as it gains strength and claims evermore victims.

"X: The Unknown" is a rarely seen and underrated monster movie from Hammer Films. Like so many horror/sci-fi films from the 1950, it features a radioactivity-driven creature that seems destined to destroy the world. The creature here is particularly well-conceived, particularly in light of the fact it's perfect for the limited effects budget and technology that the filmmakers were working with.

This is a well-crafted movie, where everyone both in front of the camera and behind it are doing their very best work. The script is suspenseful and perfectly paced, the creature is well-conceived and perfect for a film of limited budget, and the various model and special effects shots are better looking than in films with five times the budget. The actors give top-of-the-line, perfectly believable performances Heck, even James Bernard, whose music I often find overblown and inappropriately loud at all the wrong times, provided a score that works perfectly throughout the movie.

"X: The Unknown" is a film I recommend highly to lovers of 1950s sci-fi.

Friday, October 9, 2009

'Things Happen at Night' is best viewed as sleep aid

Things Happen at Night (1947)
Starring: Gordon Harker, Alfred Drayton, and Gwynneth Vaughan
Director: Francis Searle
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When his daughter (Vaughan) becomes the conduit for a fire-starting poltergeist, Mr. Prescott (Drayton) teams with an insurance adjuster (Harker) and a paranormal investigator to annoy the spirit and drive it out.

"Things Happen at Night" is a weak attempt at a horror comedy. It features a nice cast of actors who labor mightily with the bad script, but who ultimately can't overcome the material. There's very little reason to watch this film unless you're the world's biggest fan of comedian Gordon Harker... or you're looking for a drug-free sleep aid.

(I came across this film in the "Dark Crimes" 50-movie collection, and it was the odd-film-out, with its supernatural overtones in a set of crime dramas and film noir-type pieces.)


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dracula returns to menace small-town America

The Return of Dracula (aka "The Curse of Dracula" and "The Incredible Vanishing Man") (1958)
Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wyngraf, Virginia Vincent and Gage Clarke
Director: Paul Landres
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Dracula (Lederer) escapes to America by murdering a Czech artist and assuming his identity. He settles in a small California town and sets his sights on corrupting pure-hearted young girls and turning them into vampires.

"The Return of Dracula" is a vampire movie that rises far above its low budget thanks to a good script, a decent cast, and some clever touches on the part of the director. Francis Lederer (who plays Dracula) may not be a Dracula in the class of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi, but he holds his own here. He's comparable to--and even a little better than--Lon Chaney Jr.

While one is always hardpressed to describe a vampire movie as "realistic", this one comes close. The characters are all very real-seeming and performed with great skill by the actors. Particularly noteworthy are the high-school girlfriend/girlfriend characters of Tim and Rachel (portrayed by Norma Eberhardt and Ray Stricklyn), as their relationship and behavior reminded me of my own high school love-life... either things were really racy in this movie, my life was really tame in the 1980s, or things haven't change that much for active kids in the real world, despite what pop culture and politicians would have us believe. These characters seem very real throughout the picture, up and including the way in which they ultimately come face-to-face with the full might of the vampire.

The film also has several unexpected moments of artful creepiness, including one of the spookiest vampire seduction scenes ever filmed. Dracula's first victim is Jennie, a sick blind girl (Virginia Vincent) who can see him in her mind's eye as he corrupts her and devours her soul. Jennie also gets one of the creepiest vampire ressurection scenes ever filmed, as well as a very neat death scene. (The cinematography in this movie is its weakest element, but there is a shot of the vampiric Jennie flitting through the graveyard that's very beautiful. Jennie's death-by-stake moments later is also very startling, due to a bit of Hollywood trickery. I won't go into details, because the effect is one that has to be unexpected for it to have its full and starteling impact.)

Like in most vampire movies, the demise of the master vampire is somewhat anti-climactic, but Dracula's death in this film is not as embarrassing as some of the deaths he suffered in various Hammer flicks. At least here he is done in partially by his own evil deeds instead of by complete accident (like when Dracula dies by thorn bush in "The Satanic Rites of Dracula").

If you're a fan of classic horror films, I recommend you seek out "The Return of Dracula". Francis Lederer may not have been the best choice to play Dracula, but the great supporting cast makes up for his slight shortcomings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

'The Devil Bat' is one of Lugosi's best

The Devil Bat (aka "Killer Bats") (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dave O'Brien, Suzanne Kaaren, 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.)

Not much mummy action
in this early horror film.

The Eyes of the Mummy (1918)
Starring: Pola Negri, Harry Leidtke, Emil Jannings and Max Laurence
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Albert Wendland (Leidtke) rescues Ma (Negri) from Radu (Jannings), a maniac who kidnapped her and who has been passing her off as a living mummy in an Egyptian tomb. The girl finds fame and fortune as the artist's model and a cabaret dancer in a major European city. However, Radu pursues them, intent on claiming what is his through any means necessary.

"The Eyes of the Mummy" has been touted by some as the first mummy movie. I can't help but wonder if those commentators actually bothered watching it, because there is even less mummy action here than there is in Universal's 1932 "The Mummy" and no supernatural element at all.

Or is there?

There are hints in the film that Radu is more than just a scammer, kidnapper and rapist. In one scene, he seems to appear in spirit-form in Ma's bedroom, and he later commands her through nothing more than the power of his mind. What might these scenes mean?

A generous and imaginative viewer could take these elements and combine them with the story Ma tells for having been dragged from the riverbank by Radu and waking up in the tomb as proof that the spirit of an ancient Egyptian queen dwells within the girl, brought back to life by Radu through magic--her being dragged away from the river was her being brought back from the spirit world to this one.

A less-generous viewer might say that the movie is the cinematic equvilent of an inkblot and little more than a poorly defined melodrama that features a loosely stitched-together selection of gothic fiction elements tossed in with no more thought beyond "well, this'll creep 'em out!"

Whatever the case, "The Eyes of the Mummy" is an unevenly paced movie that never quite manages to invoke enough horror or suspense to make it truly entertaining; some scenes become better when you run the DVD at 2x speed, a hidden advantage to silent movies. The acting is decent (even if you're one of the people who can't stand the acting styles of early cinema) and stars Emil Jannings and Pola Negri are especially fun to watch. Negri's exotic dances are more snicker-inducing to modern viewers than they are sexy, but she shows herself to be both a good actress, dancer and stunt woman--watch for that fall down the stairs near the end of the movie!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lugosi and forgotten comedy team monkey around in 'The Gorilla'

The Gorilla (1939)
Starring: The Ritz Brothers, Lionel Atwill, Anita Louise, Bela Lugosi, Patsy Kelly, and Edward Norris
Director: Alan Dwan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When millionaire Walter Stevens (Atwill) receives a death threat from a vicious murderer and extortionist known as The Gorilla on the very eve his beautiful niece Norma (Louise) and her boyfriend (Norris) are returning to the States, he hires a trio of private detectives (The Ritz Brothers) to protect him and his family. Unfortunately, these detectives couldn't find their way around a well-lit, empty room, so things get hairy when The Gorilla strikes. They get even hairier when a REAL gorilla invades the house.

When I first put this movie in my DVD player, the opening credits took me by surprise. These days, it is being marketed as a Bela Lugosi movie (in so far as it was included in a ten-movie pack of Lugosi films), but when it was first released, the star attraction was a comedy team known as the Ritz Brothers and it was a vehicle first and foremost for them.

As a comedy, "The Gorilla" doesn't quite work, and it works even less as an intended showcase for the Ritz Brothers. Their "stupid detectives" schtick quickly becomes more annoying than funny, and the funniest bits are actualy performed by Patsy Kelly (the household's maid who wants nothing more than to quit) and Bela Lugosi as a creepy butler who seems to have the power to appear and dissapear at will. (This seems to be a minor theme in Lugosi flicks, as he plays a character with a similar talent in "Black Dragons"). It works when played for laughs, like it is here, but it is incredibly annoying when it is featured in a serious drama, like the awful "Black Dragons" was intended as.

As a mystery, the film is somewhat more entertaining. If one can tolerate the antics of the Ritz Brothers, there's actually a clever little story with some neat twists and turns and a Big Reveal that is actually somewhat surprising. (The fact that the gorilla suit featured is better than aveage also helps.)

Of primary interest, I think, is the fact that this film has ended up as an exhibit of the fleeting nature of fame. As mentioned above, I was a bit surprised when I learned this film was a vehicle for a comedy team I'd never even heard of. I did some research, and it seems that the Ritz Brothers may have bene more popular than the Marx Brothers at one time...yet the former are totally forgotten. Similarly, Lugosi and Atwill were big names in their day, but they too have sunken into obsurity. (Hardcore horror fans know Lugosi because he did "Dracula", but Atwill? Only real film geeks have even the slightest inkling about the full output of either actor. Yet, in the 30s and 40s, their names were major draws.)

"The Gorilla" is also worth watching because viewers will once again see that Lugosi was a far better comedic actor than he has ever been given credit for. His part is small here, but he shows perfect comedic timing in every scene he's in. It really is too bad that his career track was such that he didn't get to make more comedies.

In final analysis, howevery, "The Gorilla" is really only of interest to the biggest movie geeks among us... and possibly the truly hardcore fans of Bela Lugosi's work. The rest can safely pass this one by; it's not particularly bad, but it's also not very noteworthy.

(As for the Ritz Brothers, it seems their Main Funny was to be found in musical routines... of which they do none in "The Gorilla". Maybe this film is a case of the wrong vehicle for a particular group of performers. If the Ritz Brothers really were any good, it's a shame their movie legacy doesn't reflect that. This was just one or two films they starred in.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Does evil or madness move 'The Blancheville Monster'?

The Blancheville Monster (aka "Horror") (1963)

Starring: Gerard Tichy, Joan Hills, Leo Anchorez, Richard Davis and Helga Line
Director: Alberto De Martino
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A young noblewoman (Hills) returns to her family estate to find her older brother (Tichy) has replaced all the familiar servants with newcomers, including a suspicious new family doctor (Anchorez). She soon learns that her brother is attempting to hide the fact their father has gone insane and is now bent on murdering his own daugther before she turns 21 in a few days. Can her lover (Davis) stop the madman, or uncover the even darker truths about the Blancheville family before it is too late?

"The Blancheville Monster" is a straight-forward gothic romance with horror overtones and just enough twists to keep it interesting. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe stories like "The Oblong Box" (read it here ) and Roger Corman films like "The Terror" (review here) and "The Pit and the Pendulum (review here) will find this film enjoyable. However, it is far from perfect, as it suffers from a great deal of padding in the form of long walks through the haunted grounds of the Blancheville estate.

I'm giving the film a generous Six Rating, based to a large extent on the build-up to the end. I thought i had the story all figured out before the halfway mark, but I wasn't quite right. While the twist was nothing earthshattering, it was clever enough and in perfect keeping with the genre and everything that had happened previously in the film.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

One of the better 'bad monster movies' you'll ever laugh at

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)
Starring: Anthony Carbone, Robert Towne, and Betsy Jones-Moreland
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a general flees Castro's revolution with most of the Cuban treasury, he hires notorious gangster Renzo Capetto (Carbone) to bring him and his aides to safety. Capetto intends to kill his charges and keep the gold for himself, but his plans go awry thanks to a tough-talking U.S. government agent who has infiltrated his gang (Towne), persistant bearded agents of Castro, and a sea-creature that starts killing before Capetto can get around to it.

I came to this movie without any idea of what to expect other than a made-on-the-cheap monster movie. But even before the pre-credit sequence--where a man having his tennis shoes shined and then is chased by killer beatnicks with murderous intent--I knew I was in for something strange. When the tough-talking, film-noir narrator introduced hims as having infiltrated Capetto's gang undercover, but assured us that his "real name is Agent XK150" I realized that I was in for a comedy ala "Little Shope of Horrors" or "A Bucket of Blood."

"The Creature from the Haunted Sea" is a strange, nonsensical litle movie that is performed by a collection of decent to average no-name actors who spout bizarre lines with great conviction and zeal. The movie spoofs monster flicks, spy flicks, pirate movies, gangster movies, and probably one or two genres I missed. The film is very disjoined, and I'm not sure this is intentional at times, but I loved the sort of freewheeling nature of the film and the way it kept getting stranger and stranger as it progressed. (It could have done with a few more appearances by the title creature--despite the utterly awful and giggle-inspiring design)and by the hot chicks living on the island where our cast of weirdos get stranded, though.)

This is by no means a great movie, but it has a certain charm about it. It is included in a wide range of different DVD multi-packs, and its presence should be at least partly a reason to pick one up. It's a strange little film that brighten the proceedings at any Bad Movie Party.

I've placed a link to an edition that includes both the original film and a colorized version, because I am increasingly fascinated by the way films are changed--usually not for the better--when the colorization process is applied. Don't get me wrong, I am NOT some purist that will rattle on about the integrity of a director's vision--I will put good money on many directors during the 1950s and 1960s shooting in black and white because their budgets didn't allow for color film--but most directors and their cinematographers understood how to make the most out of the black and white medium and their scenes are lit and filmed to make the most of it. In the vast majority of cases, colorization drains visual excitement from a film rather than adding to it.

Then again, I'm a guy who enjoys black and white movies so I could be biased. Anyone else have thoughts on the matter? Especially if you've seen the colorzied version of "Creature from the Haunted Sea"?)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Addams Family was never as creepy as this father/daugher duo

Mark of the Vampire (aka "Vampires of Prague") (1935)
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Lionel Atwill, Elizabeth Allen, Jean Hersholt, Henry Wadsworth, Donald Meek, Bela Lugosi, Caroll Borland, and Holmes Herbert
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a local nobleman (Herbert) is found dead, his body completely drained of blood, the villagers are certain that the vampires Count Mora (Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Borland) have returned to spread more evil. However, Police Inspector Neumann (Atwill) refuses to believe in such superstitious nonsense as vampires--it IS after all 1935--and he searches for a more down-to-earth culprit. But when the nobleman's daugther (Allen) and her fiance (Wadsworth) come under attack, and the vampires being to menace the home of Baron Zinden (Hersholt), Neumann has to reconsider his sceptical ways and joins forces with the Baron and occult expert Professor Zelin (Barrymore) to destroy the vampires.

"Mark of the Vampire" is a fairly lighthearted mystery/horror movie, with some genuine chills thrown in for good measure. (The scene with Luna Mora winging her way across the vampire gathering while turning from bat into human is creepy as all get-out. In fact, every scene featuring Luna is creepy as all get-out!)

The actors here all to a good job, and the sets and lighting are all well-done. Although Lugosi has top-billing here, he really doesn't do much. He has a nice transformation scene after which he chases some terrified servants down a hallway, and his closing scene is hilariously self-referential, but otherwise all he does is stand around and grimmace. Borland even gets to be scarier than Lugosi.

The overall story isn't anything surprising, even by 1935 standards, but the final-act twist was not one that I saw coming. Its presence was welcomed, and it actually made the movie far more entertaining for me. I would have liked to have gotten a bit more background on the Moras--why does the Count have a bullet wound in his head?--but that may have overburdened the simple story that is already having to bear the above-mentioned twist.

(Speaking of that twist, it probably wasn't all that surprising to the audiences in 1935. It was standard in those days to provide down-to-earth explanations of anything that appeared supernatural in a film. The Lugosi-starring and Browning-directed "Dracula" from 1931 was the first movie to break that standard.)

"Mark of the Vampire" isn't the greatest of the 1930s thrillers, but it's still worthwhile viewing. And it's one of the six movies included in the "Hollywood Legends of Horror" DVD collection, which does include several must-see classics like The Mask of Fu Manchu and Mad Love.

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