Monday, November 30, 2009

First British talkie was Hitchcock movie ahead of its time

Blackmail (1929)
Starring: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, and John Longden
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In "Blackmail", Alice (Ondra) kills a man as he attempts to rape her. A unscrupulous witness (Paton) tries to blackmail her, as she wants to keep the incident secret for the obvious reasons. Matters are complicated even further by the fact that she is in a relationship with a police detective (Longden).

"Blackmail" is recognized as Britain's first "talkie." It started as a silent flick, but director Alfred Hitchcock reworked it in midshoot to take advantage of the new technological advancements. What's truly remarkable about "Blackmail" is that it seems more modern in nature that some films that started as talkies yet still seemed stuck in the silent movie era (such as the Lugosi-starring "Murders in the Rue Morgue" from Universal, which I review here).

The acting in the film is excellent, and actually rather unusual for the time. Further, the use of sound is fantastic. Hitchcock does far more than simply add voices to his actors... he uses sound to advance the story and the mood of the film. (There's a particularly impressive breakfast scene where the traumatized Anna hears only incoherent babble--except the words that remind her of the murder she committed standing out with crystal clarity).

Visually, the film is also worth seeing for its climax. There's a chase scene in a library that is so stylistically impressive that I'm surprised it hasn't been mimicked more. It's on par with the famous "steps scene" from "Battleship Potemkin".

"Blackmail" is a thrilling movie that was well ahead of its time. I think it's worth seeing for any movie buff.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

'Essential Monster of Frankenstein' ranges from excellent to excrement

The Essential Monster of Frankenstein (Marvel Comics, 2005)
Writers: Gary Friedrich, Doug Moench and Bill Mantlo
Artists: Mike Ploog, John Buscema, Val Mayerik,
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

I suspect that most people reading this first came to Frankenstein's Monster through the movies, be they the Hammer films or the ones from Universal Pictures. Myself, my first exposure to Frankenstein's Monster was in the pages of a comic books where in one issue I read about him fighting a giant spider while looking for the man who created him, and then later fought vampires and ultimately did come face-to-face with his maker.

These two issues helped fuel my love of comics, as random as they were in the overall placement of the Marvel Comics' version of Frankenstein's Monster, so when I saw Marvel was collection ALL the stories in one big fat book, I had to have it, so I could read the rest of the story, even if it was three decades later.

This mammoth black-and-white reprint volume features some of very best comics published by Marvel... and some of the very worst. It collects all the early of Frankenstein's Monster as seen through the prism of the House of Ideas, presenting material that original appeared in "Monster of Frankenstein," "The Frankenstein Monster," Legion of Monsters," and "Monsters Unleashed."

The tales within its pages that have Gary Friedrich credited as writer are true gems of comic story-telling. From the fabulous adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel, to the inevitable battle between gothic horror titans Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, through the tragic conclusion of the monster's quest to find the Last Frankenstein, the first 11 issues of the Monster of Frankenstein comic book are indeed "essential" reading. Friedrich's stories are well-crafted, the 19th century setting refreshing, the characters all interesting, and the illustrations for those tales, primarily by Mike Ploog and John Buscema, are also among some of the finest work those artists ever did.

The same is true of the first few reprints featuring Frankenstein's Monster from the pages of Monsters Unleashed. The saga of Frankenstien's Monster is moved into the modern day as an obsessive mad scientist discovers the inert creature in a traveling sideshow and revives him with bizarre and tragic consequences. The first few of these stories were written by Gary Friedrich and illustrated by John Buscema, and these, again, are true comic-book classics. But once Friedrich leaves as writer, the quality goes down the drain.

With the exception of the final story in the collection, the episodes penned by Doug Moench are just plain awful, with Frankenstien's Monster facing off against a silly secret criminal organization and even sillier by-products of the efforts of modern-day monster-builders. I hate to say that Moench turned in bad work for the series, as he has written some of my favorite comics ("Master of Kung-Fu," "Six From Sirius," his run on "Catwoman"), but there is just nothing redeeming about his efforts on the Frankenstien series. (Except the very last story reprinted from "Legion of Monsters". Moench and the artist he was teamed with on the strip, Val Mayerik, do their only decent work for the entire series on that one.)

In the final anaylsis, about 1/3rd of this book is trash, but the good parts are really good and this makes "Essential Monster of Frankenstein" a worthy addition to any fan of horror comics' bookshelf. Just skip the material that originally appeared in The Frankenstein Monster issues 12-18 and Monsters Unleashed issues 6-9.

Unfortunately, Marvel Comics has chosen not to keep the book in print. It's too bad, because, although flawed, It's worth seeking out, and I recommend getting a copy from some source before "collector prices" truly start kicking in.

Excellent thriller from the Britain's Premiere House of Horror

Scream of Fear (aka "Taste of Fear") (1961)
Starring: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd and Christopher Lee
Director: Seth Holt

Wheelchair-bound Penny (Strasberg) returns to her wealthy father's house for the first time in ten years, only to be told by his new wife Jane (Todd) that he has gone away suddenly on a business trip. When her father's corpse starts to appear and disappear around the property, Penny enlists the help of hunky chauffeur Robert (Lewis) to help her prove her sanity.

"Scream of Fear" is a plot any fan of suspense and horror movies has encountered at least twice--a vulnerable woman seems to be losing her mind but in truth someone is trying to drive her insane--but it's rarely been done as well as it is here. This is truly one Hammer Films' great films and it's a crime that it took so long to get it on DVD.

Extremely well acted and brilliantly cast, every performer and every line they deliver in the film plays into the fact that no one in the household is quite who they seem and everyone is keeping at least one secret. Take Christopher Lee for example. He plays a French doctor who is a very insensitive cold fish, but is he cohoots with the bad guys or is he just a jerk? Or is there something going on under the surface that has yet to be revealed? With Lee, who split his screen time evenly between playing heroes and villains, it's impossible to guess until the Big Reveal at the end.

The film is also very well constructed and finely paced from a story perspective. From the opening scene to the twist-laden climactic final few minutes, "Scream of Fear" builds the tension and terror not with the "gotcha!" scares that are so popular with filmmakers these days, but through storytelling methods that are almost entirely relegated to the written medium these days; it builds its tension through character development and by continuially deeping the film's mysteries and by reversing, double-reversing and triple reversing the audience's expectations about exactly what is going on in the film. (I've seen a dozen or so movies built around the same formula as this one, so I thought I had the story figured out fairly early on, but then a twist made me doubt my conclusing... the a little seemingly throwaway detail made me think I'd been right... and another twist showed I was completely wrong... but then a third twist got me thinking I had been right from the outset... and so on, right up to the point where various plots, schemes and deceptions of the film's characters are revealed. (Although even after that, the film has one more twist to deliver....)

Too many writers these days are turning out suspense and horror scripts with "twist endings" that they think show how clever they are. Instead, all they end up showing is how little talent or how lazy they are, because their twist endings are hardly ever based in the story and their stories are weak and badly structured. Perhaps, if these hacks would use "Scream of Fear" instead of simply "Scream" as the film to emulate, they might be able to turn out decent work.

"Scream of Fear" is only available on DVD as part of the "Icons of Horror: Hammer Films" four movie pack, a collection of excellent movies that is well-worth the asking price.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

'My Man Godfrey' has social commentary relevant today

My Man Godfrey (1936)
Starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Mischa Auer, Jean Dixon, Eugene Pallette and Alan Mobray
Director: Gregory La Cava
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a down-and-out man with a secret past (Powell) is hired as the butler for the most dysfunctional family of New York City's wealthy elite, what starts as a cruel joke ultimately ends up transforming the lives of everyone involved.

"My Man Godfrey" is one of the great comedies of the 1930s. Its fast-paced script, hilarious gags, and the top-notch cast that performs them with impeccable comic timing, makes it a movie that should still entertain all but the most brain-damaged members of Generation XBox. If you've seen William Powell in the more famous "Thin Man" series and you liked him there, you definitely need to see this movie as he gives an even better performance as the mysterious Godfrey Smith--a man retrieved from the city dump by a pair of flighty and drunken socialites, yet who has more class, polish and social grace in his left hand than they have in their entire family.

Another reason to watch the film is that the social commentary within it remains as relevant today as it was in 1936. It's particularly worth watching if you're a filmmaker or writer who wants to create a "message movie", as this film shows how to do it the RIGHT way.

Michael Moore, David Zucker and any number of other modern filmmakers who think they have important messages worth listening to should be forced to watch and write a 5,000 essay on "My Man Godfrey" before they are let anywhere near a film production again.

(And on a different note, I am hereby offering a public admission of being wrong. I told a fellow film enthusiast that I didn't think it mattered if comedies were colorized--dramas were ruined by the colorization process because it leaches the blackness from the shadows and dampens the brightness of the lit areas--and he told me that I was mistaken. Naturally, I disagreed. But the version of "My Man Godfrey" that I saw had both the original and a very well done colorized version on the same disk. However, despite the fact that the colorization job was excellent, the end result was still one that was flat and visually uninteresting. So, I have to admit that colorization hurts any kind of film that was originally filmed in black-and-white.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

'I Bury the Living' is an effective chiller

Bury the Living (1958)
Starring: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel and Peggy Mauer
Director: Albert Band
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Robert Kraft (Boone) takes his turn as chairman of the town's cemetary (a duty that all of the leading citizens eventually end up with), he approaches the job in a blase fashion. What does it matter if he marks vacant (yet spoken-for) grave sites with white pins and occupied graves with black pins on the large map in the chairman's office? Well, it matters a great deal, because Kraft discovers that when he inserts a black pin in a vacant grave, its owner is soon killed so as to make the map accurate.

"I Bury the Living" is an atmospheric horror film that captures the best elements of a Hichcock film and a Rod Serling-scripted episode of "The Twilight Zone." Although the script is a bit weak at times--some characters seem to be here for no reason other than someone thought they should be, because they are traditional genre standards, such as the Love Interest and Scoop-Hungry Reporter--the way it and the director manage to evoke a growing sense of dread, and the way the twist ending is set up and implimented are expertly done. I also love the way the map of the cemetary becomes a character unto itself as the film progresses.

This is another one of those overlooked gems that's worth a look by horror fans and mordern filmmakers. Yes, it plays a lot like a "Twilight Zone" episode, but it can show all those people out there producing brainless horror movies what can be done with just one room--the best and spookiest parts of the film happens entirely in Kraft's little office on the cemetery grounds.

(Trivia: Director Albert Band was the father of Charles Band, producer/director of hundreds of movies from the late 1970s through today. You can read my reviews of films from both father and son at The Charles Band Collection.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Out-of-Character Karloff

Welcome to the Boris Karloff Blogathon, a week-long celebration that spans over 100 blogs. To experience its full scope, click here.

* * *

Ask me to name three stars of black-and-white movies, and the first names that come to my mind are Katherine Hepburn, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I will eventually be posting reviews of Hepburn films, but I had not intended to write about Karloff or Lugosi in this forum as I have already covered their work in The Boris Karloff Collection, The Bela Lugosi Collection, and The Universal Horror Archive.

[UPDATE (July 2010): Since writing that paragraph, most of the posts from the Lugosi and Karloff blogs have been replicated in "Shades of Gray," for ease of reference.]

However, the Franksteinia blog is serving as a hub this week for the Boris Karloff Blogathon, an event that is proving to be a fabulous source of views and reviews on one of the horror genres greatest figures. I wanted to call attention to the blogathon (in case anyone out there is checking out these posts)... and that, in turn, inspired me to take the opportunity to highlight some films where Boris Karloff is playing very different characters than he is famous for.

To any fan of classic movies and to most Americans over 45, the name "Boris Karloff" evokes images of monsters, creepy bad guys, and shadowy, fog-draped cemeteries. However, Karloff's career spanned many genres and while he admittedly mostly played creepy bad guys, he did occassionally break from that character. Here are three examples of such roles--three films I think everyone who has ever admired Karloff should see. They are "Night Key" (Universal, 1937), where Karloff plays a grandfatherly inventor whose momentary desire for revenge gets him caught up in the schemes of a bunch of gangsters; "Mr. Wong, Detective" (Monogram, 1938), where he takes a turn as a mild-mannered Chinese-American private investigator; and "Lured," ("Hunt Stromberg, 1947) where he plays a part like one he wouldn't play again until he dressed in drag on an episode of "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E."

Night Key (1937)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Hobart Cavanaugh, Jean Rogers, Warren Hull, Samuel S. Hinds, Alan Baxter and Ward Bond
Director: Lloyd Corrigan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After being cheated out his latest security system by his former business partner, Steve Ranger (Hinds), inventor and security expert Dave Mallory (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge and force the crooked business man to change the deal to a fair one. Together with a petty thief (Cavanaugh), Mallory sets about using another invention--the Night Key--to override the alarm system he created and cause harmless mischief in places protected by it. But, before Mallory manages to embarrass Ranger into submission, a ruthless gangster (Baxter) learn of his device and forces him to assist them in a major heist.

"Night Key" is a fun, fast-paced 1930s techno-thriller--it's like a "Firewall" or "Mission Impossible II" of its day, only with humor replacing the violence and a script written by someone who actually knew how to write and properly develop characters in a very short space. Of course, it also helps that the film features a fabulous cast, with everyone being perfect in their parts and everyone giving top-of-the-line performances.

Boris Karloff is particularly fun in this film, as he plays a character of a sort that he hardly ever got to play: A fundamentally nice person who is as kindhearted as Karloff reportedly was in real life. (Although one assumes that Karloff was not as naive and scatterbrained as the grandfatherly Dave Mallory is.)

Thanks to good direction and even better acting, the film provides many moments of touching comedy (such as the scene where Mallory and his criminal associate have fun opening every umbrella in an umbrella store) and intense excitement (such as when Mallory devises a way to escape the clutches of the gangsters who have kidnapped him and are holding his daughter for ransom). Everything in the film works perfectly, except for a rather pointless romance between Mallory's daughter and a security guard. However, this is such a minor part of the overall movie that it hardly has an impact.

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, John St. Polis, Maxine Jennings, Lucien Prival and Evelyn Brent
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a powerful captain of industry is found dead inside his locked office moments after police detective Sam Street (Withers) saw him standing at the window, renowned private James Lee Wong (Karloff) joins forces with the homicide squad to interpret the only clues found at the scene--tiny fragments of delicate glass. When Dayton's business partners start dying under equally mysterious circumstances, and sinister agents of foreign powers start appearing in the shadows, Wong and Street have to race against time to prevent more murders, including, possibly, their own.

"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a fast-paced, well-scripted, complex mystery with lots of twists, turns, and misdirections. The array of suspects and the way suspicion moves on and off them, the way motives come into focus and blur again, the clever way the murder weapon is triggered, and the way Wong ultimately unmasks the very clever murderer, all add up to a mystery movie that deserves more attention than it gets.

Another element that adds to the film's quality is the acting. Boris Karloff is excellent as Wong, playing a more subdued and refined character than in just about any other role he played before or after, with the way Wong sarcastically offers stereotypical "Oriental humbleness" to the face of the bad guys adding flavor to the character and comedy to the film. Grant Withers as Street is likewise excellent in his part, shining particularly brightly in the scenes with Maxine Jennings, who brings effective comic relief to the picture as his feisty girlfriend, Myra. The supporting cast and co-stars also all turn in top-quality performances.

"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a film well worth the time a fan of 1930s mysteries should devote to watching it.

Lured (aka "Personal Column") (1947)
Starring: Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, George Sanders, George Zucco, Cedrick Hardwicke, and Boris Karloff
Director: Douglas Sirk
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Scotland Yard's Inspector Temple (Coburn) hires sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued down-and-out American actress Sandra Carpenter (Ball) to serve as a lure for a serial killer who has been prowling through London's shadows, murdering young women he contacts through personal ads. With her Scotland Yard "guardian angel" Barrett (Zucco) watching over her, she undertakes the dangerous task of drawing out the insane killer.

"Lured" is a well-done, light-touch police procedural thriller (with touches of romance and melodrama along the way) that features an all-star cast of 1940s B-movie actors (and a respected stage actor thrown in for good measure), all of whom deliver great performances.

The dialogue is snappy, the tense moments genuinely tense, the funny moments genuinely funny, and the many red herrings tasty. Boris Karloff's character serves as the oddest and funniest fish of them all--and it's not a spoiler to say that he isn't the serial killer. Yes, it's the sort of part he often plays, but not here, and it will be obvious to viewers almost immediately. (Some might say he's WORSE than a serial killer here... he plays an eccentric fashion designer!)

I think this is a film that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes classic mystery movies. I also think that fans of Lucille Ball will enjoy seeing her in her pre-screwball comedy days. (Speaking of comedy, George Zucco's scenes with Ball are always amusing, as Sandra repeatedly inadvertently helps Barrett solve the crossword puzzles he's constantly working on with stray comments.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Karloff is driven by mysterious forces
when he becomes 'The Walking Dead'

The Walking Dead (1936)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill and Ricardo Cortez
Director: Michael Curtiz
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Ex-con and all-around sad sack John Ellman (Karloff) is framed for murder by racketeers, he is unjustily executed in the electric chair, dying even as the governor is trying to reach the prison to stay the execution when a witness (Churchill) comes forward with evidence that clears him. The innocent man is given a second chance at life when Dr. Beaumont (Gwenn) brings him back to life with an experimental technique, but death has changed Ellman. Initially, he seems to be mentally disabled, but an encounter with the racketeer-allied attorney who helped frame him (Cortez) reveals that Ellman has changed in ways no mortal will ever be able to comprehend.

"The Walking Dead" is an early genre-bending effort from Warner Brothers that mixes mad science, horror, and crime drama with a deftness that I wouldn't have thought possible. Although a naked attempt to cash in on the horror genre that was doing so well for other studios--but still hewing close to the crime films that were Warners' specialty--it has an intelligent and multi-layered script full of unpredictable twists and turns; excellent pacing and beautiful, moody photography; sympathetic heroes you will be rooting for, and villains that you have no problem hating and won't mind seeing come to bad ends.

One of the most important factors making this film such compelling viewing is the excellent performances by its cast.

Edmund Gwynn plays a doctor who is more interested in first proving that he can bring the dead back to life and later interested in learning what happens to the soul after death than he is in John Ellman's health or sanity, He portrays the character with such likability that its impossible not to like him despite it all.

On the flipside, there is Ricardo Cortez, who plays an absolutely destible mob attorney who through the picture pretends to be looking out for Ellway's interests but who is really trying to see him put to death so he and his fellow criminals remain untouchable by the law. It's a character so slimy that we can't wait to see him get his just rewards, mostly because Cortez plays him with such a cool and detached grace.

And then there's Boris Karloff as John Ellway. Just like Karloff brought humanity to Frankenstein's Monster with a few gestures and body language, so does he convey the deep pain and confusion suffered by Ellway once he is restored to life. It's a confusion that's doubly fascinating, because as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent to the viewer that Ellway has returned from the Other Side with a limited sort of omnicience that allows him to know who the conspirators were that framed him for murder, but not why.

Without spoiling too much of the movie while discussing the aspect that I found the most interesting about it, I will reveal that Ellway spends the second half of the movie looking for the answer to his fate, but never receiving it, as there are other forces that are swirling around him, forces that are making the "untouchables" pay for their crime. And with each denied attempt at discovering why he was marked for death, his pain grows, and it's a pain that Karloff conveys with absolute perfection.

But Ellway's search for answers raises an interesting question about whatever forces govern life, death, and whatever comes after. Whatever they are in this film's world, they seem to have the ability to observe everything that happens with absolute clarity, but have no understanding of why something happens. Ellway recognizes the men who conspired to kill him when he sees them, but their motivation eludes him. Further, whatever the forces are, they also seem not to care about the whys of events... or at least they don't care whether Ellway gets his answers or not.

In the end, the film leaves all the characters wondering about life and death and fate (well, the ones who are still alive at the end of the film), and it will also give the audience members a little food for thought. The final scene is a bit maudelin, but it maintains the mysterious air that surrounded Ellway from the moment he was brought back to life and it really couldn't be more perfect.

"The Walking Dead" is an overlooked classic that every fan of Boris Karloff should see. He gives a performance that is on par with whatever of his more celebrated roles you care to mention. The film has recently once again become easily accessible to the public as part of the "Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics" four-movie DVD pack. "The Walking Dead" is the only real classic in the bunch, but the price for the set is worth it for this film alone, so you can view the other included pictures as "bonus features." (None of them are outright bad, but they're not exactly great either.)

Happy Thanksgiving to
Americans Everywhere!

Jean Arthur and Lillian Roth are out hunting down a turkey for you to enjoy!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Is there truth behind the 'Strange Illusion'?

Strange Illusion (aka "Out of the Dark") (1945)
Starring: James Lydon, William Warren, Sally Eilers, and Regis Toomey
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A college student (Lydon) is suspicious of the man (Warren) his widowed mother (Eilers) is about to marry. Evidence mounts that the boyfriend may actually be a shadowy serial killer who has been eluding police for years... but is the "evidence" merely coincidences that are being exagerrated in the young man's jealous mind, or is his mother truly in danger?

"Strange Illusion" is a thriller with sinister villians, and an interesting plot that's part Shakespeare and part Hitchcock. It's also got an unsual hero for a crime drama--young college kids weren't typically the protagonists in these sorts of films from the 1930s and 1940s--although that's another similarity to both Shakespeare and Hitchcock's films that this one exhibits. The dialogue is well-done, and the performances by the actors are all decent enough.

Despite all those positive points, this film is far from perfect. It could have benefitted immensely from another script rewrite or two before filming wrapped.

Our hero's suspicion of his mother's new love arises from a recurring dream he has. In fact, most of the increasingly damning clues he finds also originate with the recurring dream. I don't have the feeling the film is implying the young man is psychic, but that instead the clues are somehow being delivered to him by his subconcious mind. However, the dream reveals things to him that he couldn't possibly have known, subconscious or otherwise, and this overuse of the plot device drags the movie down to the point where it almost slips to the lower end of average. Then there's a few bits of sloppy filmmaking--such as when the vantage point upon a scene viewed through binoculars changes dramatically between two uses to look at the same spot from the same location--that don't exactly help to enhance the film's quality.

Nonetheless, this is an unusual entry in the thriller/film-noir genre, and it's worth a look. It's not as good as Ulmer's Lugosi/Karloff vehicle "The Black Cat," but it's still damn good.

(I also think that William Warren plays one of the slimiest characters I've yet to see in a movie. Whether or not he's the serial killer Our Hero believes him to be--and I won't say that he is, because I try not to spoil movies in this space--he is definately a Bad Guy who no-one would want to see their mother marry!)

Hell hath no fury like an evil witch scorned

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Starring: Raymond Burr, Barbara Payton, Lon Chaney Jr, Tom Conway, and Carol Varga
Director: Curt Siodmak
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Brutish plantation foreman Barney Chavez (Burr) rejects his Indian lover Larina (Varga) after starting an affair with his boss’s wife, Dina (Payton). After dispatching his boss in a staged accident, Barney gets both the wife and the plantation. Although Police Commissioner Taro (Chaney) suspects from the beginning that the accident was staged, he can’t get enough solid evidence to prove Chavez’s guilt. However, Chavez soon faces justice more severe than the law, as a twist in the plot proves that hell hath no fury like the mother of a woman scorned… particularly a mother who has access to deadly folk-magic.

“Bride of the Gorilla” occupies a space somewhere between an overblown melodrama and a horror film. Unfortunately, its story is a bit too thin and the characters way to stock to allow it to rise above the quality of the most feeble of “Tales from the Crypt”-type chillers. (The ending is also very remincent of those types of stories.)

Given the material they have to work with, the actors all do a respectable job, but the reason one would have for watching “Bride of the Gorilla” would be to admire the classic starlet beauty of Payton and Varga. There really isn’t anything else to recommend the film to modern audiences.

'Return of the Vampire' is mostly feeble

Return of the Vampire (1944)
Starring: Matt Willis, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch and Bela Lugosi
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

At the height of WWI, Lady Jane (Inescort) joined with an occult expert to slay a vampire (Lugosi) that was preying on his daughter. More than two decades later, as WWII rages, the vampire is restored to life during Nazi bombing raid on London. He sets about executing revenge and to claim the victim he was once denied (Foch).

According to some sources, "Return of the Vampire" started as Columbia's plan to make a direct sequel to Universal's classic "Dracula"... until Universal threatened to sue. In response, Columbia then had some minor script changes done, including changing all the names of the characters, but otherwise proceeded with their project as planned. Although he was called "Armand Tesla," Bela Lugosi was once again playing the role that made him a movie star.

Unfortunately, "Return of the Vampire" isn't as good as "Dracula." The story is weaker here, not to mention even more predictable even than one based on a famous stage play and novel, and the sets and camera-work aren't even close to as evocative as those featured in Lugosi's previous outing as a vampire. Even the film where he played a fake vampire ("Mark of the Vampire") had more horror atmosphere and surprises than this film, which has a slap-dash, quickie feel to it from beginning to end. (A minor source of distraction while watching is that also seems obvious that many of the scenes featuring "Bela Lugosi" are actually a body double. It's slightly less obvious than the doubling Edward D. Wood Jr would do a decade later when Lugosi passed away during production of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," but it's still plain.)

Despite mostly tepid direction, an almost entirely predictable script, and one of the most drab collections of vampire film characters since the original "Dracula" film, there are some highlights here that makes it interesting to watch.

Firstly, the film is the first to feature both a vampire and a werewolf, beating "House of Frankenstein" to the screens by a matter of months.

Secondly, the film draws upon a more truthfully folklore oriented background for its featured werewolf than the made-up-of-whole-cloth lycanthrope legend from "The Wolf Man" which has become the pop cultural standard. In the universe of "Return of the Vampire," a werewolf is a person dominated and controlled by evil forces and the cycles of the moon have nothing to do with anything except the tides.

Thirdly, it is one of the few monster movies of this vintage that places itself firmly in the everyday world, with its references to the German bombings on London and the overall war effort. I think only Val Lewton's films for RKO were more successful in highlighting supernatural horror by placing it squarely in the middle of the recognizable modern world. (This approach would, of course, swiftly become the norm.)

Finally, while the film's director and cinematographer both mostly seem to have been on vacation while this film was being made, they did manage to create some classic fright moments on the film's cemetery set--the vampire moving through the fogbound graveyard are the films most visually interesting moments--and the final confrontation in the tomb actually manages to bring some real excitement and tension to the film. It's the one point while watching it where I found myself unsure of how the scene would play out, and after roughly an hour of lameness, the film finally became worthwhile and ended on a strong note.

"Return of the Vampire" is really only of interest for those Lugosi completists out there, or if you are the world's biggest admirer of Nina Foch. There is is really not enough entertainment here for the average fan of old movies to make it worth seeking out.

'The Old Dark House' is a classic
that failed at the box office

Many great masterpieces started out as commercial product, made by all involved as part of the everyday grind of making a living, just like a carpenter makes a table. They were also rarely seen as little different than the carpenter making the table. It therefore is not surprising that no matter how good the end product, if it doesn't catch on in the marketplace, it will be tossed aside for items that will bring in more money and pay those ever-voracious creditors.

One such product is "The Old Dark House," one of a number of nearly forgotten early horror films from Universal. Like other obscure films, it didn't do well at the box office... in fact, this one bombed so badly both on its initial release and re-release that it left craters. (While it broke box-office records in the UK, the film was a financial disaster in the US. It was also slammed by most American film critics when it was first released, with only the New York City critics seeming to like it.)

It's only natural that Universal Pictures and all those involved with the film tossed it aside and instead focused on things that put helped them keep up with the bills. The film was considered so worthless that it was believed to have been destroyed until it was rediscovered and restored in the late 1960s. At that time, Boris Karloff is reported to have seemed bemused when the man who saved the film from oblivion told him of the restoration effort; I imagine Karloff couldn't conceive of why anyone would spend money and time to preserve a failed movie.

Truth is, "The Dark Old House" was only a failure in a commercial sense. Anyone with a taste for classic movies who watches it now will recognize it as a film that should be held in equal regard to the other landmark Karloff features like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy." Like those, it's a true classic that is exciting to watch even today.

It was, ironically, the invoking of Karloff that probably helped doom this movie during both its initial 1932 release and its 1939 re-released in the United States. Universal's marketing material so emphasized the fact that Karloff of "Frankenstein" fame was in it that one is left with the impression that he is not only the star but that this is another monster-driven fright fest.

Both of those impressions are false, so it's no surprise that negative word-of-mouth killed the box office even in New York where the papers were praising the film.

Truth is, "The Dark Old House" is more of a mystery/comedy film than a horror movie. It's also a far more "British" film than "American" as far as the humor and characters go, so it's no surprise it was better received in the UK.

I assume most of you reading this have already seen "The Dark Old House," so you know what a treasure it is--as for me, the DVD was in my "To Watch" pile for about a year, until this Blogaton gave me the perfect opportunity to watch and write about it. Now I wish I'd seen it the very moment it arrived in the post!

If you haven't seen "The Old Dark House," you absolutely must check it out. It's available on an excellent DVD from Kino Video. Read on for my review of the film, and then use the link to get yourself a copy; it'll cost you about the same as a movie ticket these days, but it's a film far superior to most of the garbage polluting the cinema now.

The Old Dark House (1932)
Starring: Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Bremer Wills and Boris Karloff
Director: James Whale
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A violent storm forces five travelers to take shelter in an isolated house in the Welsh mountains. Before the night is over, love will come to some of the inhabitants of the house while death will come for others.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House
"The Old Dark House" is a quirky horror film from the days when the genre was still taking shape. It features an even mix of romance, dark comedy and melodramatic horror action in a household so riddled with insanity that even the House of Usher looks like the Cleavers by comparison. It's a tone and mixture of elements that has only rarely been achieved, with films like "Drag Me to Hell" and "Dead Alive" coming closest in the past decade.

When it was first released, it failed to appeal to the public nor to most critics, due in a large part to a marketing campaign that centered on Boris Karloff, who had just been featured in the mega-hit "Frankenstein." Karloff's role in this film is actually very minor, and he is more red herring than monster. He was also, strangely, more easy to recognize in the monster make-up than he is under the beard and facial scars of Morgan, the alcoholic and mute butler he portrays in this film.

The true star of the film is actually Gloria Stuart. Although it is a definite ensemble piece, Stuart appears in all the key scenes and hers is the character that is threatened in turn by each of the menacing figures in the old dark house. She gives an excellent performance throughout the film, It's a shame that this would be the only truly good part she would play in her film career, and the only decent role the casting directors at Universal chose to give her. (Interestingly, Universal executives wanted Stuart for the part of a "female Tarzan," and it was possibly her adamant refusal to even consider it that doomed her chances of ever playing a decent role at the studio again.)

Aside from Stuart, the two other standout performers are Melvyn Douglas, whose roguish war veteran character is the heroic and romantic center of the film; and Bremer Wills, whose character arrives late in the picture, but whose chilling performance is nonetheless one of the most memorable things about the film.

Also of particular note are Lillian Bond, who is perhaps better here than in any other film she would make; Charles Laughton, who actually sympathetic for once; and Ernest Thesiger, who manages to be funny and scary at the same time.

The staging of each shot is also remarkable, as is the attention paid both to the visual composition of each scene, as well as the careful deployment of sound throughout. There is no music score for the film, but the sounds generated by the storm raging outside the house provide far more drama than any orchestra could do.

Because the film was a commercial disaster both in 1932 and during its re-release in 1939, Universal Pictures considered it a worthless property. They eventually let all rights revert to estate of the novelist whose work the film had been based on and the negatives were left to rot in storage in New York City. If not for a concerted effort on the part of filmmaker Curtis Harrington--a fan of the film and friend of director James Whale--it might have been lost forever by the late 1960s. Even the best available print shows some damage, despite the restoration efforts.

"The Old Dark House" is a film worth seeing again and again for the excellent performances and careful staging; you are guaranteed to notice something new each time you watch it. It's particularly worth watching for Gloria Stuart's performance. Karloff is, as usual, excellent, doing what he can with a part that doesn't give him very much to do.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Underrated Orson Welles thriller

The Stranger (1946)
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, and Loretta Young
Director: Orson Welles
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A US government agent, Wilson, (Robinson) is on the trail of Franz Kindler, a psychopathic genius who made the Nazi concentration camps the efficient centers of death they were. No pictures exist of him, but when Wilson traces Kindler to a small Connecticut town, clues start mounting that well-liked newcomer to town college professor Charles Rankin (Welles) who just married the beloved daughter of the town's leading citizen, Mary (Young), is in truth Kindler.

Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, and Loretta Young in The Stranger
"The Stranger" is a greatly underrated Orson Welles movie. It's a little slow in the wind-up, but once it gets gong, it moves along its suspenseful story-track with great deliberation and all of the elements working together in perfect time, just like the mechanisms of the clocks that Rankin and Kindler both enjoy working with.

Full of great acting, great camera work, and a perfectly paced story that first keeps the audience guessing and then keeps them on the edge of their seats as it builds toward its spectacular finale high atop the town's clock tower. Welles is in top form here, both as an actor and a director, and if you are a fan his work, of "film noir", or if you enjoyed recent films like "A History of Violence", you need to track down a copy of "The Stranger."

(Trivia: This was the only film Orson Welles produced/directed that turned a profit, primarily because he stayed on schedule and under budget for this one and only time.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ed Wood and the Criminal Mind

Edward D. Wood Jr. is remembered by history as a cinematic sad-sack. He was a dreamer who never put in the effort to learn the craft of writing or filmmaking, and all his excitement and hopes couldn't replace craftsmanship. His films are universally shoddy to say the least.

Wood's most famous pictures are the ones he made with Bela Lugosi (including his best work, the very heartfelt and bizarre "Glen or Glenda?"). You can read my reviews of those films here, at a blog closely related to this one, The Bela Lugosi Collection.

In this article, however, I discuss Wood's two attempts at the film noir genre, one which was a solo effort and another where he simpl wrote the script for another (equally inept) filmmaker.

Jail Bait (aka "Hidden Face") (1954)
Starring: Herbert Rawlinson, Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell, Clancy Malone, Steve Reeves, and Theodora Thurman
Dirrector: Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Steve's Rating: Four of Ten Stars
A kindly old plastic surgeon (Rawlinson) is forced to give a gangster (Farrell) a new face in order to save his son's life.

"Jail Bait" is average Ed Wood, which means it's pretty bad.

The acting is universally awful, although in the case of Rawlinson and Talbot, I think the performance is more a result of what they had to work with and WHO they had to work with than a lack of talent; both men have been much better in other films. Talbot was never particularly amazing, but he was far better in "Trapped By Television," for example. (Although, it might speak volumes of Rawlinson's professionalism that he was willing to deliver a classic Ed Wood lines like "This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation earlier in the day." Although, why no one on the set didn't say, "Hey, Ed... should this line be 'We had a long telephone coversation earlier this day' or 'This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation'?" I can't possibly imagine.)

The story is also padded and drawn out, first by a pointless bit of older footage of a boring burlesque dancer and then by a handful of overwrought scenes of questionable value. Basically, Wood crams 45 minutes of excitement into a 70-minute running time.

There are some interesting ideas plot-wise, though. I think that with a more competent director, a better cast, a script that had been revised by someone who could read, and a budget of more than $32 for sets and make-up--even the most generous and most imaginative of viewers couldn't possibly consider the shabby set that is the home of gangster Vic Brady's kept woman "fancy", no matter how much the characters insist that it is--this could have been a decent crime drama. It might even have been touching at times, with its message about supportive fathers and love between family members.
But, none of that is the case, and this ends up being a weak effort, even by Edward D. Wood, Jr. standards.

Still, there's enough quirky charm here to make "Jail Bait" worthy of adding to the line-up for a "Bad Movie Night." Just know that the title is misleading--its taken from a line delivered by Fuller's character, where she refers to her brother's unregistered handgun as "jail bait"... the phrase must have meant something different in 1953, or at least something different to Ed Wood.

The Violent Years (aka "Female," "Girl Gang Terrorists" and "Teenage Girl Gang") (1956)
Starring: Jean Moorhead, Barbara Weeks, Joanne Cangi, Gloria Farr, Therea Hancock, Timothy Farrell, Arthur Millan, I. Stanford Jolley, and Lee Constant
Director: William Morgan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The neglected daughter of a socialite and a workaholic newspaper editor forms a gang of other girls who receive everything but attention from their parents. Together, they go on an ever-escalating crime-spree that involves gas station robberies, the rape of young men, and even the desecration of the American flag!

"The Violent Years" is a film written by the infamous Edward Wood, a screenwriter and director whose flims only redeeming qualities were that the passion he had for filmmaking managed to show through the cheap sets, bad acting, and incompetent direction, and the quirky sort of poetic cadence that was present in his dialogue. (Of course, also present were awful lines like, "It's hard for an old friend to sit in judgement of an old friend.") Although one might think that another director at the helm of this movie might elevate above Ed Wood's usual low standards, but it happens that William Morgan is about as skilled a craftsman as Wood.

That said, this film still has has its decent points. First off, it has a message that is equally valid today. Parents need to do more parenting--as in, they need to set aside their own interests and desires for the years when they should be focusing on guiding and nurturing the young lives they've brought into this world--if we're to pull American society out of the tailspin it's been in for the past 50 years. It's delivered in so hamfisted a fashion that it makes "Reefer Madness" seem subtle, but it's a message that I wish would reach reach the appropriate ears and one that I wish would be heeded. It also features a nice reversal of the oft-featured gang-rape scene in these sorts of youth crime films, and perhaps one of the most creative executions of a car crash in a film where the budget didn't allow for a car crash. Oh... and just about every female character who you might want to see in tight clothes is indeed wearing tight clothes. If only real life had so many firm bosoms in tight sweaters!

On the downside, we've got some pretty horrible acting that's matched only by the film's horrible casting. The teenage wild things, who are around 15 or 16 years old according to the film's story, are played by actresses who are obviously in their late 20s or early 30s, something which lends an air of rediculousnesses to the story. Further, we once again are treated to some of the cheapest looking homes of rich people that have ever been put on film. (Ed Wood kept writing about fancy homes, but the sets in his movies never rose to even being close to believable on that count.)

Of course, there's also plenty of "so bad they're good" moments in the film, such as the pajama party, the shoot-out, and the aforementioned rape scene which is on one hand as creepy and disturbing as it needs to be, but undermined by an illogical simultaneous escape scene.

Like Ed Wood's other message picture, "Glen or Glenda?", "The Violent Years" delivers a point that is worth taking to heart--while the previous film asked for tolerance of those who are different, this film calls for parents to live up to their responsibilities and presents us with an over-the-top example of the consequences of parental neglect. And it has the added benefit of delivering its message wrapped in tight sweaters.

'Beat the Devil' is quirky fun

Beat the Devil (1954)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, and Ivor Barnard
Director: John Huston
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A down-and-out, formerly wealthy couple (Bogart and Lollobrigida) hook up with a group of international criminals who wish to use their reputation in order to facilitate a scam in British East Africa involving the acquisition of land rich in uranium. They befriend an English couple (Jones and Underdown) who will be traveling with them on the same tramp freighter to Africa, but their new friends aren't quite what they seem.

"Beat the Devil" is a low-key comedy that spoofs the crime dramas so popular in the '40s and '50s and that holds your attention with its fast-moving plot and witty dialogue. The characters featured are all seemingly stock characters from those movies--and the lead actors playing them have done exactly these types of characters in other films--but as the movie progresses, we discover they've all been given slight twists that turn them into mildly comic versions of their stock counterparts. (The exception is Bogart, who remains the straight man throughout, as the other characters have their ludicrous sides exposed and he tries to keep his ticket back to wealth from collapsing.)

Particuarly fun are Morley, who portrays a gullible and inept criminal mastermind; Lorre, who plays an escaped Nazi who now goes by the name of O'Hara, despite his accent marking him as anything but Irish; Barnard, who portrays the homicidal British ex-Army officer who thinks the defeat of Hitler has sent the world into a downward spiral; and Jones, who plays the wide-eyed British subject abroad but whose unending pathelogical lying (and her inability to keep her stories straight or even tell the same lie twice) serves as the catalyst that sows distrust and chaos among the story's characters. And things are all the more hilarious, because everyone is playing their parts straight and taking things as seriously as you'd expect them to in any other crime drama.

With an all-star cast giving fine performances, powered by John Huston's skilled direction and Truman Capote's sharp and witty script, "Beat the Devil" is another one of those classics that is seen too rarely.

If you decide to check this movie out, I want to warn you away from the version released by Passion Productions--it's got an orange cover with black-and-white images of Bogart, Jones, and Lollobrigida on the cover. The dialogue is out of sync for a good portion of the film, and it's very distracting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

One of the finest thrillers ever made

The Amazing Mr. X (aka "The Spiritualist") (1948)
Starring: Turhan Bey, Lynn Bari, and Cathy O'Donnell
Director: Bernard Verhaus
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Greiving widow Christine Faber (Bari) finds herself haunted by her husband's ghost. In a fortuitous coincidence, Christine meets Alexis (Bey), a psychic who offers to help her contact her husband's spirit put it to rest. But Christine's younger sister (Cathy O'Donnell) and Christine's would-be new paramour thinks that the meeting with Alexis was too fortuitous, and they suspect that perhaps he is part of a scam to defraud the emotionally frail Christine of her inheritance. Meanwhile, the haunting grows more intense, and the ghost seems to want to drag Christine to a watery grave....

A scene from The Spiritualist
This 1948 B-movie is an excellently made thriller. It is well acted, well filmed, moves briskly, and keeps the viewer engaged with clever plot-twists and a couple of nicely done double-reversals of expectations. There are films with perhaps twenty times the budget of "The Amazing Mr. X" that aren't half as successful at telling the kind of story that this film features--which, I admit, was pretty well-worn even in 1948. Modern filmmakers trying their hands at thrillers with supernatural overtones would do well to study this film, as it shows exactly how that kind of film is made.

Don't let the cheesy title fool you. This is a top-notch thriller that's well worth a look by any lover of the genre.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Claudia Dell

Claudia Dell was a chorus dancer who appeared in a string of B-pictures during the 1930s, but whose greatest claim to fame was serving as the model for the original Paramount Pictures logo (the one with the beautiful woman holding a torch).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Most impressive vomiting scene ever filmed
is highlight of 'Jack the Vomiter'

Jack the Vomiter (2006)
Starring: Jon Swanstrom
Director: Derrick King, Mike Corrigan, Travis Hiibner and Gary McLeod

A killer (Swanstrom) is stalking through the shadows of a Victorian-era city, butchering prostitutes and leaving a... um... most unusual signature at each brutal slayings.

The film's title gives away part of this strange little short's punchline, but you still won't be prepared for what actually happens, and you'll be laughing despite yourself... laughing until you almost puke. But you won't puke like Jack... no one pukes like Jack!

The filmmakers shot "Jack the Vomiter" as if it was a silent movie, and they used various methods to make the film appear as if it was a ill-used silent movie, with missing frames, badly done splices, scratches, and burn- and mildew-damage. When I originally posted this review to Rotten Tomatoes, I commented that I thought they filmmakers had gone a bit far with the "aging" of the film, that the damage appeared so severe that I doubted it could even run through a projector if it had been real. At the time, I assumed the damage was computer generated.

However, Mike Corrigan contacted me with the following technical information about the film: "The 'missing frames, badly done splices, scratches, and burn- and mildew-damage" were actually the result of hand-processing the 16mm sections in a bucket without any regard for correct procedure. Hence, the film came out stuck together and half processed in spots. Then we dried it in my back yard where it picked up even more crud. We actually DID run it through a projector (amazingly) and parts of it were transferred at home. Just thought you'd be interested in our 'process.'"

"Jack the Vomiter" is a very interesting bit of film, although the inconsistent narrative tone is a weakness that bothers me. In some scenes, the filmakers do a good job of capturing the feel of a real silent movie (even if the subject matter would never have appeared in one), yet in others not even a halfhearted attempt is made. However, the effective use of an occasional sound and the strategically placed, deadpan-humours title cards go along way to make up for the inconsistent cinematic styles. And the projectile vomiting. I've never laughed so hard at vomiting in my life! It's a scene that must be seen to be believed!

As far as the vomiting goes, Corrigan added this: "The Vomit Canon? Well, that's a trade secret!"

I must admit that I don't understand the point of this film (unless it was to create the most impressive vomit scene ever displayed on screen), but it entertained me and that's ultimately what matters most when it comes to movies.

Click here to visit the official HeadJuice Production website. You can even purchase your very own DVD copy of "Jack the Vomiter" while there.

'The Industructable Man' is low point
for Lon Chaney Jr

The Indestructable Man (1956)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Casey Adams, and Marian Carr
Director: Jack Pollexfen
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After executed killer and armored car robber Charles "Butcher" Benton (Chaney) is accidentally revived, made bullet-proof, and given super-strength by a researcher experimenting on cadavers, he sets out to get revenge on his former partners in crime. Along the way, he butchers anyone who gets in his way.

"The Industructable Man" is 45 minutes of excitement stretched out to 70. And it's done with cheap sets, cheap special effects, and cheap actors. It also does it with a cheap script by a pair writers who don't quite know the rules of storytelling. They set up a situation where the vengeful "Butcher" might seem to kill our burlesque-dancing heroine (Carr) and then do nothing with it--and dammit, if there's a rifle over the fireplace in the first act, it needs to be fired by the third!

Another drawback with this film is the frequent close-ups of Lon Chaney's eyes. He looks like a broken-down drunk in the long shots, but the extreme close-ups of his wet, quivering eyes with bags under them almost as large as the eyeballs themselves does drives home the image. I'm sure the filmmakers had envisioned a sense of menace in those eyes... but all they really say is "Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?"

The one thing the film has going for it is its deadpan, "Dragnet"-style cops and narration. Nothing seems to faze these guys... or get in the way of their romancing exotic dancers at drive-in burger joints.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Alcatraz Three vs. the Third Reich

Hitler, Dead or Alive (1942)
Starring: Ward Bond, Dorothy Tree, Paul Fix, Warren Hymer, Felix Basch, Bruce Edwards, Bob Watson, Frederick Giermann and Russell Hicks
Director: Nick Grinde
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Three recently-released-from-Alcatraz gangsters (Bond, Fix and Hymer) head to Nazi Germany to collect a $1 million dollar bounty placed on the head of Hitler (Watson) by an eccentric industrialist (Hicks).

"Hitler, Dead or Alive" was a war-time action/comedy that was clearly intended for kids and teens. I think that even in 1942, adults would either chuckle or sneer (depending on whether they had a sense of humor or not) at the ludicrous scheme of our three heroes.

Without spoiling the film, here's the gist of the plan: The Alcatraz Three join the Canadian Airforce as paratroopers and steal a transport plane during a training mission and head to Germany with no more of a plan than to claim they are Nazi agents with an important message that can only be delivered to Hitler in person... at which time they intend to shoot him. They only get as far as they do because the SS officers and troopers they deal with are even more thick-headed than they are, and because the leader of an underground railroad helping prisoners escape the Nazis becomes curious about what the three knuckleheads are up to.

Of course, the film is primarily comedic in tone, so some of the outrageousness of the storyline can be forgiven and even appreciated. Even the hokey dialogue can be enjoyed if this movie is approached with fun in mind. The overall package here is so silly and strange that the film would be a perfect addition to a Bad Movie Night, especially one focusing on war movies.

"Hitler, Dead of Alive" reaches the height of goofiness when the heroes contact the German underground by hearing a man walking along whistling "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The leader of the gangster, Steve, says, "That's the one song no Nazi would whistle!" And when Hitler arrives on the scene, the way he's portrayed is only slightly less goofy... it's almost as if Hynkle crossed over from Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" for a guest appearance. I think this film also features one of the weirdest, yet fitting, demises for Hitler ever put on screen.

The strangest aspect of the film is the sudden shift in tone it takes during its closing minutes. The comedic tone--with the dimwitted gangsters and even stupider Nazis and antics involving dressing up like a string quartet in order to get close to Hitler--is suddenly thrown overboard when the Nazis start lining children up against walls and gunning them down. It's an abrupt change... and it might be a reflection of the American psyche as the full scope of the horrific acts of Hitler and his Nazis could no longer be covered up or ignored by sympathizers and appeasers.

(The lack of knowledge of the part of Americans is clearly on display in this film as the three heroes are briefly imprisoned at Dachau, a place we now know was one of camps where the Nazis carried out their agenda of genocide but which here is portrayed as an internment camp for political prisoners. It's a clear illustration of the fact that even those making anti-Nazi propaganda films couldn't imagine the true monstrosity of what was unfolding in Germany and the countries it conquered.)

"Hitler, Dead of Alive" is actually the sort of film that I wish someone in Hollywood would have made back in 2002 or so... "Bin Laden, Dead of Alive" would have been a movie worth seeing, a movie where even criminals come to recognize who the real bad guys are, even if they are initially motivated by greed.

Bi-planes buzz through dawn of talkies in
'Hell's Angels'

Hell's Angels (1930)
Starring: Ben Lyon, James Hall, and Jean Harlow
Director: Howard Hughes
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When WWI breaks out, two very different brothers (Lyon and Hall) join the infant RAF... and become two of the first War in the Heavens' many unsung heroes. Along the way, zeppelins are blown up, bi-planes crashed, hearts broken, and war lays bare the true nature of both men.

I thought I'd like this movie more than I did. Perhaps I'd wanted to see it for so long, and I'd heard so many good things about it that my expectations were too high.

The characters were decent and well-defined--I felt very sorry for the more British-than-British and honorable-to-the-bone Roy Rutledge, who gets abused by his slutty girlfriend (Harlow) and his cowardly brother, despite his loyalty to and love for both--the lines between the good guys and bad guys are clearly drawn--the German officers are shown to throw away the lives of their men with barely the slightest hesitation, while the British officers concoct dangerous schemes to weaken the enemy and preserve the lives of their troops--and the film features spectacular action sequences--the battle of the zeppelins over London is the movie's high point, but the battle above the German lines during the daring bombing run a depot far behind enemy lines.

It's definitely a well done movie, but it's a movie that's shows its age. Despite the well-defined characters and great action scenes, it, like so many of the early talkies, feels like it's struggling with the new medium of sound. The actors in particular are still performing as though they are in a silent movie, and just about every emotion and action is so exaggerated that many of them come off as being bad actors.

I think the film also suffers from the fact that extended sequences are shot using early versions of color film, which basically boiled down to everything appearing in varying tones of blue (during many of the aerial scenes) or greens and reds (like during the grand charity ball where we first discover that the love of Roy's life, Helen, is something of a slut) instead of the shades of gray that's typical for a black-and-white movie. While its impressively adventuresome of Hughes to be utilizing that technology at such an early time, it was used with such greater effectiveness in "Doctor X" that they "color" sequences mostly annoyed me than thrilled me. And I wasn't exactly thrilled by the duo-tone in "Doctor X", but they did some impressive and impactful things with the color there... here, the filmmakers just seemed to take the stance that color was enough in-and-of-itself and there was no need to get terribly creative with it.

Despite being disappointed, I still think this is a good movie, and it's a film that everyone who considers themselves a film-bluff should see. I should probably be embarrassed for not having sought it out early, but I also can't remember the last time I've seen it for sale or rent. (I'm glad I waited though, because the UCLA-spearheaded restoration I was was a spectacular work, and I recommend that you seek out that version, if you are looking for the film.)

Bava spoofs Hitchcock in
The Girl Who Knew Too Much

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962)
Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Dante Pialo and Valentina Cortese
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Nora Davis (Roman), a young American travels to Rome to visit a relative, but she's even off the plane, she inadvertently becomes involved with a drug smuggler. Then, on the dark and stormy night of her arrival, her relative has a heart attack and dies. As she rushes to the hospital, she is mugged. While trying to recover from the blow to the head, she witnesses a woman being stabbed to death, but no one believes her because the body vanishes and the rain washes away all the blood. To top it off, she is targeted by a serial killer who has remained inactive for ten years because her last name is "Davis." At least she has the handsome and virile Dr. Bassi (Saxon) to comfort her... that is, unless he's actually the insane murderer.

As that summary should imply, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" has a plot that is more than a little ridiculous. I sat down to watch this movie not knowing anything about it, but less than five minutes in, I noted that Mario Bava was coming off like a poor man's Alfred Hitchcock... and then the movie went into the string of events mentioned in my summary and it almost lost me.

Until the scene in a hospital was so absurd that it dawned on me that I was watching one of the driest, drollest spoofs ever put on film.

"The Girl Who Knew Too Much" went so over the top because the film isn't mimicking a Hitchcock picture, it was poking good-natured fun at many of the elements that were Hitchcock cinematic mainstays. Later, once John Saxon's character of Dr. Bassi is firmly established, the fact the movie is a comedy is hard to miss--Bassi borderlines on a slapstick character--but the humor is for the most part very subtle and it helps to have watched lots of Hitchcock.

I don't know if I was just being dense or if the comedy really is that hard to pick up on, but like with other of Bava's films, there are two distinctly different versions of it--this one, which was made for the Italian audience, and "The Evil Eye", which was made for the international market and which features a number of scenes that aren't present here and which are more overtly comical. (The very informative commentary by film historian Tim Lucas on the DVD version I watched discussed the differences.)

With most of the films that Bava had a hand in writing, the script is a bit dodgy and it's obvious that he's a director who is more interested in delivering exceptional visuals than a solid story. Given that this is a spoof of a Byzantine mystery that doesn't need to make a whole lot of sense in the end, that's forgivable in this case. It's even more forgivable, because this is one of the most gorgeous, best-shot films Bava ever helmed. It takes full advantage of the black-and-white film medium, using deep shadows and highlights to their full dramatic effect. Bava's command of the film's visuals are so great that there was only one time where I rolled my eyes and wanted to reach through time and tell him and his camera man to stop calling attention to how clever and artistic they are, a reaction I usually have at least three times during a Bava film. (Cinematography-wise, this one ranks with "Danger: Diabolik!" as far as the mastery of the film medium goes.)

With "The Girl Who Knew Too Much", I'm starting to appreciate a little more why Mario Bava gets touted as a genius by many fans of B-movies. I'm still not convinced he was a genius, but this is unquestionably a gorgeously filmed movie. With a better script, it could have been a masterpiece instead of just a classic. (In fact, just as Bava provided what I am convinced was the final element that brought about the creative chemical reaction that gave birth the slasher subgenre in horror movies with "A Bay of Blood", so did he cause a genre of distinctly Italian murder mysteries to be created, the gallio. These films usually involve gruesome murders that are witnessed by the main character yet that he or she often can't prove actually happened. The main character then sets about solving the crime and catching the killer, with increasing danger and body count as the film unfold.

Whether Bava was a genius or not, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" is a film that is a must-see for anyone who's a film student or who has an interest in film history in general. I also think it's a must-see for Hitchcock fans, because it's such a well-made spoof that it becomes a thriller that I suspect Hitchcock might have been proud of making.

Myth meets reality in
'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Starring: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Edmond O'Brien, Lee Marvin and Andy Devine
Director: John Ford
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A successful 19th century politician (Stewart) reveals the true events behind his legendary gunfight against the feared outlaw Liberty Valance (Marvin) that led to the taming of an entire region of the United States.

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is at once a fantastic western with an all-star cast giving top-notch performances, a commentary on the evolution of a society, and an exploration of how appearances and legends are sometimes more important than reality. It's a film with a multi-layered story of a timeless kind that speaks as solidly to viewers today as it did when it was released 45 years ago, just as it will speak to viewers 45 years in the future. This is one of those very rare films that truly deserves to labeled as a "classic".

Among the many excellent performances in this film, particular notice needs to be given to John Wayne. To the inattentive viewer, the character of Tom Donaphin is little more than a stereotypical "white hat" cowboy of the kind that Wayne played dozens of times during the 1940s and 1950s. However, Tom is a deceptively complex man whose macho bearing and sincerely held patrician beliefs and attitudes are both his greatest strength and fatal weakness. It's a complex character that Wayne does justice with what may well be the subtlest performance of his career. I suspect anyone out there who likes John Wayne has already seen this movie, but if you haven't, you need to seek it out. It will give you a whole new appreciation for the man's talent as an actor.

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