Tuesday, December 28, 2010

'The Elongated Man' is good in small doses

DC Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man (DC Comics, 2006)
Writers: Gardner Fox and John Broome
Artists: Carmine Infantino, Sid Green, Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, et. al.
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"DC Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man" is another huge (500+ pages) low-cost reprint book presenting classic DC Comics stories in black-and-white. This one features the early appearances of the Elongated Man, collection stories from issues of "The Flash" (where the character debuted as a curious superhero competitor to the Fastest Man Alive) and "Detective Comics" were he headlined his own back-up strip.

The Elongated Man is a chemist and amateur detective named Ralph Dibny who gains the power to stretch his body in impossible ways by drinking his own hyper-concentrated variant of a substance sideshow contortionists use to stay limber, Gingold juice. Always hungry for attention, Ralph swiftly gave up on the notion of keeping his identity secret, and one interesting point about the series is that this was the first superhero in the DC stable to dispense with the double-identity mainstay of the genre. He was also the first DC superhero to marry his love interest, Sue.

Aside from a few team-ups with Flash and Kid Flash, the book focuses on Ralph and Sue traveling around the world, enjoying the care-free status of the independently wealthy and solving bizarre mysteries where-ever they go. Not only does Ralph have a bizarre superpower which he uses in bizarre ways--such as elongating his kneecap to smack a thug in the face--but he appears to be a weirdness magnet. Sue, serving as a sort of reader surrogate at times, observes on more than one occasion on how they can't go anywhere without Ralph's mystery-sniffing nose starting to twitch (literally).

Aside from the Flash (and his associated supporting cast), the Elongated Man stories have no recurring characters aside from Ralph and Sue. While that's partly because these are stories that focus far more on gimmicks than character--more on that below--the relationship between the two is about as ideal a marriage that I think has been presented anywhere else in American comics, free of the usual soap operatic twists and turns that haunted Reed & Sue Richards and Barry & Iris Allen over the years. Discounting odd occurrences like Sue's mind being transplanted into the body of a French con-artist and visa-versa, the Dibny never marriage suffered any challenges or stresses more severe than the usual arguments any couple will get into now and then. It's an aspect I believe mature readers--as in adults--will find appealing.

But there are many more aspects of the book that adults will have a far harder time appreciating, as the stories within its pages are definitely written for children,or those very young at heart. The mysteries that the Elongated Man investigates usually have solutions so bizarre that they're the sort of thing I believe only a kid can fully appreciate; if you've ever listened to kids make up stories while playing with their Legos or action figures or dolls, you know exactly what I mean. In fact, the most impressive thing about this collection of stories is the ability that writers Fox and Broome have to get in touch with their inner children. Most writers--including myself, I fear--would say "Nah, that's too silly... I can't possibly write that."

The silliness Elongated Man's adventures were of course part-and-parcel with many of the Julie Schwartz-helmed titles from the 1960s--be they ones featuring Batman or the Flash--but it is extra-concentrated here. So much so that it becomes too much if you read more than two or three of them in a row, or so it was for the 40+ year-old me. I think adults can better appreciate the material here in small doses, even if I am certain that a kid could probably devour the entire book in one or two sittings.

What I never got enough of, however, was the fantastic Carmine Infantino art that graces the first 450 pages of the book without interruption. Infantino's highly stylized artwork is perfect for showcasing the odd nature of Ralph Dibny's powers, as well as for capturing the lighthearted feel of the adventures he has with wife Sue. In fact, the 100 or so pages where readers get the rare treat of seeing Infantino ink his own pencils should be counted among the best work he did during the 1960s.

By way of contrast, stories illustrated in a more naturalistic fashion late in the book, by Neal Adams and Irv Novick fall flat, because they lack that surrealistic feel that Infantino brings to the tales; it's an interesting dichotomy that an artist noted for a knack for giving even round objects sharp edges would be the absolutely right person to illustrate a series about a man who is infinitely fluid.

Trivia: Editor Julie Schwartz, co-creator of the Elongated Man, stated that if he had been aware that DC Comics acquired the rights to Golden Age character Plastic Man in the mid-1950s, he never would have bothered with inventing a new character.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mohammed Monday: Priorities

This is the last Monday of 2010, and the last of the weekly Mohammed Mondays. This feature will go to a whenever-the-mood-strikes-me --not because I care about offending Muslim Maniacs, and over-sensitives paranoiacs prone to hysterics, but because I have better things to do with my time than search for suitable cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (may pizza be upon him).

Speaking of priorities, that's the subject of today's cartoon by Jennifer Armstrong.

This cartoon originally appeared here, in a post that also serves as a nice background piece on why Mohammed Monday exists. (The final trigger was the fact that Islamic terrorists forced Molly Norris to change her name and go underground.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Picture Perfect Special:
Princesses of Mars, Part One

If you want to know why Santa Claus really wanted to conquer the Martians, all you have to do is look at these portraits of Martian beauties Dejah Thoris and Thuvia. (This is the first of a series of posts that spotlight the most attractive aspects of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic sci-fi/fantasy tales of adventures on the dying planet of Mars, as seen through the eyes of various artists. Where applicable, click on the linked names for more of the particular artist's work.)

By Chris Samnee

By William Stout
By M.W. Kaluta
By Adam Hughes

Friday, December 24, 2010

Picture Perfect Special: Christmas Visions

By Franklin Booth

And to close it out, here are links to a couple of interesting Christmas picture posts at other blogs.
First up, there's Glenn Belverio's chronicle of his Alfred Hitchcock Christmas Tree-Trimming Party in New York, December 11, 2010. I wonder what Santa's favorite Hitchcock movie is?

Meanwhile, over at Fantasy Ink, we get to see Christmas in Riverdale via some original cover art for Archie Comics. (Actually, there are a whole slew of neat Christmas-related posts there. Click here to see them all.)

I hope everyone reading this has a Merry Christmas and I hope you all have a nice, relaxing time with love ones, family, and friends.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Christmas Visitor for Naughty Kids

In 1925, a young Joan Crawford posed for this Christmas-themed publicity photo. It doesn't have the playful air these things usually have. I can't quite decide whether she looks unhappy, stern, or angry. I imagine they were going for seductive, but Crawford didn't manage to project that.

So, what is going on in the photo?

For me, this picture portrays the elf who visits really naughty kids on Christmas Eve and takes gifts they got from people other than Santa and either leaves coal or broken toys in their place.

(What? You thought I was going somewhere else?)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Greed, lust, love, and justice have 'Impact'

Impact (1949)
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Helen Walker, Charles Coburn, Anna May Wong, and Tony Barrett
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After his gold-digging wife (Walker) and her sleazy lover (Barrett) fail in their attempt to murder him, through-and-through nice-guy and self-made business tycoon Walter Williams (Donlevy) hides out and recovers in a small Idaho town as he reads newspapers accounts of his wife's ongoing trail for his murder. Although his heart is full of hunger for revenge--a revenge he hopes to see delivered when his wife is executed for supposedly murdering him--his growing romance with the widowed owner of a gas station and car repair shop (Raines) who hired him as a mechanic, causes his inherently good side to reassert itself and he returns to San Francisco to clear his wife and set the facts straight. But things don't go quite as he had planned....

"Impact" is an interesting and unpredictable film from beginning to end with talented actors portraying interesting characters as they deliver sharply written dialogue and move through a story that features a number of film noir and mystery genre standards being deployed in unexpected ways. The creators of this film even managed to do successfully what so many try and fail at: Just when you think the film is about to be over--when it reaches the point where many lesser films would be over--things instead get really bad for our poor hero and the film changes gears and keeps going for another 15-20 minutes. More often than not, when filmmakers do this, my reaction is, "Oh, for God's sake... you just blew the perfect ending and now you're wasting my time with unnecessary crap and undermining your movie." But not this time.

"Impact" stars in a film-noirish vein, with viewers quickly realizing that both Fate and his evil bitch of a wife are conspiring to make the life of  Brian Donlevy's character--a man who is no-nonsense and gruff in his business dealings but who is endlessly kind and compassionate to his friends and loved ones--very unpleasant.  But after the attempted murder, the film breaks away from that tone and instead places Donlevy's character in a peaceful town full of nice people. Instead of going darker and following Walter Williams on a revenge spree,  it instead lightens up a bit... even if there is still quite a bit of darkness in the sense that Williams is passively watching the justice system move his wife ever-closer to execution for a murder she didn't manage to pull off. But even as he nurses his hatred, the kindness of the characters around him eventually draws out his true, fundamentally good nature. And once Williams reveals to the authorities that he is not dead, the film enters yet a third mode, as it becomes a courtroom drama, with a little bit of film noir coloring for good measure.

The genre-mashing and shifts in tone that go on in this film could well have doomed it, especially the final portion. It's a testament to the skill of the writers, the director, and the actors that the audience is drawn deeper into the story and becomes more eager to see how it will all turn out instead of being put off.

Naturally, the actors have a great deal to do with the success of a film, and "Impact" is no exception; a bad actor can ruin the most well-developed character and spoil the most finely crafted lines.

In this film we're treated to Brian Donlevy playing a sensitive male before they were in vogue... and he even has a scene where he cries without seeming wimpy or laughable. I'm not able at the moment to think of another Guy Moment quite as heartbreaking as the ragged sob that issues forth from Walter Williams when the realization that the person he loves above all else was behind the violent attempt on his life; it's made even greater by the fact that Donlevy was such a tough character, both in his screen roles and in real life. An extension of the unexpected depth of Donlevy's character is the relationship that develops between him and the widow played by Ella Raines. It's a mature relationship, between two mature people that have both loved and lost and who realize that it's time to give love and life a second chance. It's the sort of relationship that any adult should hope to be in, as well as the kind of relationship that isn't often portrayed in movies. Raines' performance strikes the exact right balance between tough self-reliance and vulnerability to make her character the ideal match for Donlevy's Williams.

Another great performance comes from Helen Walker, Williams' despicable wife. For the majority of the film, she is a run-of-the-mill femme fatale that the audience is eagerly waiting to be served her just rewards, but in the scene where she is confronted by her supposedly dead husband, Walker conveys more with body language and facial expression than pages of dialogue would be able to do. In that scene, Walker shows her character's emotions going from surprise, to panic, to defeat, to the realization that she she can still take advantage of her husband's kind heart to save herself and destroy him even now, with barely an uttered word. She also manages to fully convey the depths of evil within the woman. It's a scene that clearly shows what a tragedy it is for movie lovers that she never achieved the leading lady status that she would have been more than capable of handling.

"Impact" is one of hundreds of movies from the 1930s and 1940s that were in danger of slipping into oblivion but was brought to the public again with the advent of the digital age and the DVD. It's a film that any lover of classic mysteries needs to check out, and both sources for it feature an excellent, crystal-clear print. (I rarely bother to comment on the quality of these public domain films on DVD, but this one was so well preserved that it's worth noting.)

(Trivia: Brian Donlevy lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army at 14. He also loved to write poetry. When he retired from acting, he turned to short story writing.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Ten Days to Christmas!

Janet Leigh reminds everyone that you have ten days to get Christmas cards and presents to the people you love (or even me, your kind host).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

'The Moth' is not worth catching

The Moth (1934)
Starring: Sally O'Neil, Paul Page, Wilfred Lucas, Rae Dagget, Fred Kelsey, and Duncan Renaldo
Director: Fred C. Newmeyer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Wild-child heiress Diane Wyman (O'Neil) loses her fortune when her guardian (Lucas) invokes a morality clause in her father's will following one media scandal too many. The lecherous old man helped engineered the scandal, hoping to force her completely under his power, but she runs off to New Orleans, where she naively falls in with a pair of jewel thieves (Dagget and Renaldo). The thieves pretend to be her friends, but they are just setting her up to take the fall for their latest heist and make a detective who has pursued them from New York that the disgraced socialite is actually the mysterious jewel thief known as "The Moth." Will George (Page), the handsome engineer who has become infatuated with her, manage to save Diane from the many sinister forces arrayed against her?

"The Moth" is an almost inappropriately light-hearted movie, given the fairly vile characters that are set to destroy the naive young woman who is its focal character, be it the dirty old man who is supposed to be looking out for her best interests but really just wants to possess her; or the cold-hearted thieves, who take advantage of her to cover their escape. Of course, given that it's so sloppily written movie that relies on coincidence after coincidence to keep the plot going, fails to be funny in most places where it's supposed to be, and the straight-forwardness of the plot makes the build-up of suspense nearly non-existent, it's hard to tell if its creators failed to make a drama or created one of the least funny comedies ever made.

The film is especially unfunny in the sense that the disgusting character who is Diane's guardian is supposed to be comic relief, and the screen writers and director blow both their key moments of suspense--when it looks like Diane is going to be caught with the stolen jewels, and when one of the thieves wants to turn to murder to insure his get-away--by introducing the threats and disposing of them before the audience even has time to grow concerned about them. It's rare to find a movie as brief as this one where the pacing is off, but that is the major flaw here.

Another flaw is the directing and the acting, both of which were more suitable to the silent movies where the director and much of the cast got their starts. While it's easy to see why the very pretty Sally O'Neil was a big star, it's equally easy to understand why she couldn't make a successful transition to the talkies. While she had charisma and beauty, she had an acting style more suitable for theatre or the always larger-than-life pantomimes needed to convey action and emotion in silent films. By 1937, her screen career was over, and O'Neil returned to theatre where her career had started.

Despite my criticism of her performance, O'Neil and her character of Diane Wyman are the only thing that makes this movie worth watching. She is by far the most interesting performer in the film, and even the most cynical viewer will want this likable, if none-to-bright, character to somehow recognize that the only person around who cares at all for her well-being is George, the one person she keeps pushing away and abusing.

Still, this is not a movie that's really worth seeking out. It's one of those films that's been from oblivion and once again put in front of the public by the advent of digital media and the relative ease of manufacturing DVDs, but unlike so many hidden treasures found in the Alpha Video catalogue, I doubt anyone would have missed "The Moth" had vanished forever. (Although I must congratulate the art department at Alpha Video for coming up with a cover design far more interesting than the movie; it was the cover alone that prompted me to buy the disc. It's got nothing at all to do with the movie, but it's pretty cool... almost like the days of the exploitation films where the crappier the movie, the more exciting the poster. The Roger Corman Marketing Team Spirit is alive and well in DVD Land!)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mohammad Monday: Correcting Islam's Image

Here's another sampling of the long-running strip "Jesus and Mo". I think there are "holy men" out there once again saying exactly what Mo is reporting, given the adherent of the Islamic Death Cult who failed at his attempted mass-murder in Stockholm this weekend.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Shaheed Sunday: Celebrating brave Jihadists!

You can read all about the glorious strike for the honor of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed (may peas be upon him) made yesterday in Sweden by clicking here.

And here are cartoons presented in celebration of this grand martyr's achievement (as well as providing another image of the Prophet Mohammed (may pinatas be upon him) in all his glory!

For images guarenteed suitable for all your idol-worshiping needs, be sure to stop by for Mohammed Mondays.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

'The Ghost Ship' is an offbeat thriller

The Ghost Ship (1943)
Starring: Russell Wade, Richard Dix, Skelton Knaggs, Ben Bard, Edmund Glover, and Edith Barrett
Director: Mark Robson
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

During the 1940s, producer Val Lewton made a string of landmark horror films for RKO, films with humble origins--he was given small budgets, titles picked in advance by the marketing people, and in many cases additional requirements that he had use certain specific standing sets. Yet, it was in these movies that many of the tricks that horror filmmakers still use to this very day were either first used or perfected. And while Lewton didn't actually direct any of the films, those who did credit him with defining the style and their trail-blazing filmmaking vocabulary.

With "The Ghost Ship," Lewton was given the task to make a horror movie using a ship set left over from the 1938 production "Pacific Liner". As was typical, he more than rose to the task and created a psychological thriller dripping with atmosphere and that keeps viewers guessing about the outcome until the very end. It also features moments of horror that few (if any) directors and producers will never be able to get up on the screen even in their wildest dreams.

In "Ghost Ship", young Tom Merriam (Wade) signs on as third officer of the Altair, a ship under the command of the respected and well-known Captain Stone (Dix). Tom quickly realizes that Stone is gradually going insane, becoming obsessed with power and believing the crew is plotting against him. He tries to call the attention of his fellow officers to this fact, but their loyalty to the captain blinds them to his growing and evermore dangerous eccentricities. Tom finds himself the target of the captain's deadly resentment, but manages to end his contract and leave the ship, safely escaping his clutches. Or so he thinks... as a series of misunderstandings places him right back on the Altair as it leaves for an extended cruise. A cruise that Tom is not likely to survive.

Simple both in story and execution, "Ghost Ship" is nonetheless a tense, character-driven thriller that keeps viewers engaged by placing its sympathetic and reluctant hero at the mercy of a madman that no one but he recognizes for what he is. Further, by demonstrating the homicidal nature of Captain Stone in a couple of very well-staged scenes of horror--the foremost of these being the one where Stone locks a crewman in the housing for the anchor chain as the anchor is being lifted--director Mark Robson makes it seem more than likely that Tom won't live as far as the end credits.

Of course, the tight script and moody cinematography wouldn't have seemed half as effective if the cast hasn't been so good. Russell Wade is a bit bland, but he works well in the part of the earnest officer who finds his idealism crashing headlong into a nightmare, while Richard Dix is almost brilliant in the part of the insane captain, switching from menacing to stern to bat-shit maniacal to coldly rational within short order... and coming across equally convincing in all modes of behavior. Dix's performances makes it absolutely plausible that Stone's insanity could go completely unnoticed by everyone else in his life and under his command, and this is what makes the movie so very scary.

Six decades after it was made, "Ghost Ship" remains a film that would-be makers of horror movies and thrillers should be forced to study and write 2,000 word essays on... especially if their last names are Argento, Zombie, or De Palma. Maybe their film-craft would improve.

Has anyone out there seen "Ghost Ship"? What do you think is the scariest moment in the film? For me, it's the life-and-death struggle during the climax that happens mere feet from a group of unaware sailors happily singing Calypso music.

Interesting Fact: Shortly after the release of "Ghost Ship", a pair of play-wrights claimed Val Lewton had stolen their story and took Lewton and RKO to court. Although an out-of-court settlement offer was made, Lewton didn't want the accusation of him being plagerist hanging out there, so he insisted the case go to trail. The courts found against Lewton and RKO, and the film was was withdrawn from distribution. It was not seen again by the public for over 50 years.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mohammed Monday:
What Would Mohammed Drive?

In December of 2002, editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette answered the question "What would Mohammed drive?" with the following cartoon:

He got the usual threats of murder and mutilation from Mohammed death cultists and other followers of the Religion of Peace.

It's interesting how the idolators of the Prophet Mohammed (may peaches be upon him) automatically assumed that the cartoon referred to the Prophet Mohammed (may peas be upon him). Why would they have such an idea? There were no Ryder trucks or missiles in the day of their beloved and most perfect Prophet. And there are all sorts of guys named Mohammed who want to murder people.

Take for example Mohamed O. Mohamud, devout Muslim (according to his friends) and typical Lion of Islam slacker terrorist/mass-murderer wanna-be. In November 2010, Mohmamud provided his own answer to the question "what would Mohamed drive?" and it's the same that the cartoonist came up with. Does this mean that Mohamed O. Muhamud is a Prophet? Or does it mean he is like unto the Prophet Mohammed (may pleats be upon him), carrying on as he would and as he commands in the Most Holy Koran?

The lesson here is that the idolators (and perhaps even the "faithful Muslims") seem to know exactly what Mohammed would drive, whether it be the Prophet Mohammed (may peat be upon him) or Mohamed O. Mohamud, the MOM of all Mohammedans!

In fairness, at least one Imam disavowed Mohamed O. Mohamud, so I suppose this means there is at least ONE Muslim who is peaceful. This also indicates that he is smarter than a lot of Oregonians, many of whom seemed to blame the FBI for MOM's murderous intentions.

(The Mohammed Mondays series will continue on a weekly basis through the end of the year, after which it will become a bi-weekly feature. Submissions are welcomed. Click here for links to background and details.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Werewolf by Night' goes out howling

Essential Werewolf by Night, Vol. 2 (Marvel Comics, 2007)
Writer: Doug Moench
Artists: Don Perlin, et. al.
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"Werewolf By Night" was one of several titles published by Marvel Comics that played off a mixture of classic movie monsters and 1970s exploitation movie fare. Following the exploits of reluctant werewolf Jack Russell, it was perhaps the most successful of the titles from a pure story-telling point of view, with a direction and tone set in the first few tales in "Marvel Spotlight" that continued with only a minor adjustment up to the title's cancellation with issue #42.

In this massive, low-cost black-and-white reprint book, Marvel Comics presents the second half of one of their greatest horror series, "Werewolf By Night", with the 20 issues of the regular comic benefiting from the presence of a single creative team of writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin, and a steadiness of story focus almost unmatched in Marvel's horror titles. Although the title passed through the hands of three different editors, Moench and Perlin seemed to be holding steadily to the same path the series had been following all along, avoiding the numerous re-inventions that kept causing Ghost Rider's motorcycle to sputter, as well as avoiding getting tangled up in too many subplots as Marv Wolfman did on "Tomb of Dracula". There are a number of story threads running through the book--including some that started in the previous volume, one or two of which were unceremoniously dropped by previous writers--and Moench and Perlin keep them all flowing and tie them up very neatly at exactly the right moment every time. They even managed to almost successfully usher the Werewolf into a position of viable superhero as Marvel's horror wave crashed, creating in the process a character that would go onto become one of the more interesting Batman knock-offs comicdom has ever seen, Moon Knight. Moench and Perlin may not have been the original creative team on the title, but they were certainly the greatest.

In addition to the 20 issues of the regular series, the book collects four issues of "Giant-Sized Werewolf" and an issue of "Marvel Premiere". The one thing these additions have in common is that they are the weakest points of the book, not only disrupting the flow of the main story as you read the collection, with forced meetings between the Werewolf and other Marvel horror characters (like Frankenstein's Monster and Mobius the Living Vampire) and stories that just aren't as interesting as the ones in the main title. The exception is the tale from "Giant-Sized Werewolf #3" which reintroduces characters and story elements last seen around the middle of "Essential Werewolf By Night, Vol. 1" and starts a ball rolling that eventually brings us to some of the most effective of Marvel's horror tales.

Basically, as was the case with most of Marvel's horror characters, "Werewolf By Night" was at its best when it stood apart from the greater Marvel Universe. Most cross-overs simply didn't work, including those featuring other horror characters, such as Frankenstein's Monster.

Superhero flair and classic/exploitation horror aren't easy to mix--as my comments regarding the "Giant-Sized Werewolf" reprints implies--but Moench and Perlin tried it with "Werewolf By Night" as the last dozen or so issues of the title moved steadily in a more traditional Marvel direction, with Jack Russell gaining control of his transformations and even coming up against Iron Man in the final issue. But, as Moench and Perlin worked to transition the title, they gave us some of the most effective horror stories Marvel ever published.

In their efforts to tie up Jack Russell's horror past, the werewolf first savagely mauled Jack's best friend, Jack's sister is transformed into a hideous monster when a villain triggers the dormant werewolf within her; long-time supporting cast members Taboo and Topaz return during a show-down with the downright Lovecraftian villain Glitternight; Brother Voodoo shows up to help put Jack's legal problems behind him in one of the most effective appearances of that inherently goofy character ever, a final showdown takes place against the downright Lovecraftian villain Glitternight; and Jack and friends are trapped in a haunted house where the title manages to surpass even the horrific Tom Sutton-illustrated Tatterdaemallion stories of Volume One.

But, as excellent as these stories were, the Marvel Age of Monsters was over. As the 1970s came to a close, so did Werewolf By Night. However, it ended on a very strong note, and the two volumes collecting all the early stories of Marvel Comics' reluctant werewolf are worthy of attention from comics and horror fans alike.

Friday, December 3, 2010

'The Giant Claw' is attached to a fun turkey

The Giant Claw (1957)
Starring: Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday
Director: Fred F. Sears
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An electrical engineer who happens to be dabble in molecular physics on the side (Morrow) and his mathematician Girl Friday (Corday) work with the United States military to find a way to defeat an invulnerable giant anti-matter bird from outer space that has come to Earth to nest (and eat planes, trains, the United Nations Building, and joyriding teenagers).

"The Giant Claw" is a film that demonstrates that the cheesy science fiction movie hasn't changed in 50 years. I'll leave it up to you to decide if that means this film was ahead of its time, or if it means we should be sad over the state of the art of the genre film. Me, I enjoyed this movie the same way I enjoy the goofy monster films that appear on Sci-Fi Channel during "the most dangerous night of television."

The pacing, tone, and quality of acting of this movie is almost identical to "Monster Ark", a Sci-Fi Channel Original Picture that I saw a while back. Heck, the monsters in the two films are equally goofy looking and they're both animated through the cheapest possible effects of the day. (The alien buzzard in "The Giant Claw" is a marionette attacking miniatures, while the creature in "Monster Ark" is a CGI creature of dubious quality attacking similarly dubiously animated targets or actors performing with bad gore effects.)

If you've enjoyed any of the Sci-Fi Channel's monster movies, you should also give this film a try. Even if you haven't, it's worth a look if your monster movie viewing experience isn't ruined by a little silliness. Unlike many 1950s low-budget monster movies, "The Giant Claw" wastes no time getting started and it keeps going at a fast clip for its entire 76-minute running time.

As silly as the giant space buzzard looks, the crunching sounds as it eats the crew of a plane who attempted to parachute to safety and the anti-matter death-from-above it visits upon a carload of teenagers are actually some pretty good monster movie moments by any standard. Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday also make a good on-screen team.

Check out "The Giant Claw". At the very least, slate it for inclusion in a Bad Movie Night line-up. It's almost tailor-made for such an event!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Extra Picture Perfect Wednesday:
The Milla Jovovich Quarterly

Continuing the habit of featuring Milla Jovovich on Picture Perfect Wednesday every three months, we present a look at her methods of preparing for physically demanding action movie roles.

For more Milla, click here for a trio of pictures that show her development from the start of her modeling career to the present day, as part of a research project that proves she has caused earthquakes around the world.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Merry Christmas from Uncle Creepy

Drawing by Bernie Wrightson. Click here for his website.

Monday, November 29, 2010

'Stranglers of Bombay' is an excellent
Hammer adventure film

Stranglers of Bombay (1959)
Starring: Guy Rolfe, George Pastell, Allan Cuthbertson, Marne Maitland, Andrew Cruickshank, Roger Delgado, Jan Holden, Davis Spenser, and Tutte Lemkow
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An officer of the East India Company (Rolfe) battles ignorance and classism among the Indians as he tries to unlock the mystery behind mass disappearances across India, as well as the growing number of vanishing merchant caravans. He soon becomes a target himself, when the death-worshiping Thugees behind the disappearances decide to sacrifice him to their goddess Kali before he reveals they have infiltrated every layer of Indian society, even the British East India Company itself.

"Stranglers of Bombay" is a classic classic pulp-fiction style adventure tale with a heroic protagonist battling against dark and sinister forces that everyone else is either too ignorant or too scared to confront. It's also got a chilling horror vibe running through it, sparked by the hero being the only person who seems to want to take the threat of the Kali cult seriously and ignited fully when viewers get to witness the evil brutality of the cultists in the name of their goddess and the long reach of their leaders. The film takes on an even more frightening tone when one considers that it is based in part on actual historical facts.

Some out there with heightened sensitivities to political correctness may watch this movie with growing indignation over the "racism" present, what with a valiant White Man fighting to save civilization from Dark-skinned Savages. As is so often the case, those viewers will be too busy looking for offense to pay attention to what is really going on in the film.

Out of all the characters in the film, there is one single person who gives a damn about the victims of the Thugees and that is Guy Rolfe's obsessive truth-seeker Captain Lewis. The English merchants and troops employed by the East India Company only care about profits, the Indians don't care so long as victims aren't of their caste or religion, and every major character in the film except Lewis is complicit in their own way in allowing the Kali cult to operate and spread. One could make the case that Indian society would not have degenerated to the point where its people were incapable of mustering even the smallest degree of human compassion across religious and societal divisions if not for the commercial influences of the British Empire from the 17th century onward, but then one would be taking the same stance the film does; "Stranglers of Bombay" is even-handed in its indictment of British and Indian society of the time.

As for the film itself, it's a product of Hammer's Golden Age of Gothic. (Which would be something else those busily finding reasons to be offended might miss; the "corrupting alien other" is part and parcel with the genre this film belongs to.) It's therefore no surprise that Terence Fisher, the man responsible for Hammer's other great gothic adventure-tinged horror tales--even if the emphasis here is more on adventure than horror--was in the director's chair for this one as well. The film benefits tremendously for Fisher's talent for capturing exactly the right images and performances, as well as his ability to make even the cheapest movie look like it was made for ten times the budget.

While cast is okay, there is no one here who truly stands out the way Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or even Andrew Keir did. Guy Rolfe is a decent enough actor, but he works primarily in the role because the audience quickly develops deep sympathy for him because he is working under idiot superiors who are more concerned with a person's social standing than competency--as demonstrated when Lewis is set aside for an unqualified high-born officer when it comes to leading the investigation into the disappearances--and who believe that their social rank alone makes them competent. Rolfe works because Allan Cuthbertson and Andrew Cruickshank project the snobbery and gross ignorance of their characters so clearly that viewers dislike them more than the film's viler villains, the Kali cultists.

As for the cultists, they are okay, but not spectacular. George Pastell is passable as the evil high priest, but even for 1959 he was a bit on the tame and gentile side. Marne Maitland is similarly okay in his role as a displaced Indian "headman" who seems to have allied himself with the Thugee out of a thirst for revenge more than anything--and I'm not giving away the plot here... at this late date, it would be a surprise if he wasn't in league with the villains--but that's it. The most interesting villain is a mute bit-player--the busty Marie Devereux--who is the only woman seen in the Kali temple or at their rituals. She reportedly had a bigger role in the film before the British censors decided to protect the world from her leering excitedly at the sight of men being tortured, but I doubt there would have been more of an explanation as to what she was doing at the rituals than we got. One can't help but wonder; how twisted and evil would a girl have to be to get a place at the heart of a male dominated death cult?

Marie Devereux as Kali's breast--um--best girl!

"Stranglers of Bombay" is available in the four-movie pack "Icons of Adventure," and it is actually one of the lesser offerings in that set. Check it out to see that Hammer Films could tackle adventure films as effectively as they could horror movies and thrillers.

(The preview for "Stranglers of Bombay", included as a bonus feature in the set is a lot of fun by itself. "See mongoose battle snake for a man's life ... in Strangloscope!")

Mohammed Monday: Coffee, the Nectar of Allah?

Here's a fun little cartoon from New Zealand's Brandon Wright in which he reveals the intimate relationship between coffee, Islam, and the Prophet Mohammed (may beans be upon him). Click to see it full size and read the text.

Coffee may be solid proof that Mohammed WAS indeed a prophet of some sort of divine entity... and that the divine black liquid drives his followers into frenzies both murderous and amorous, as it did Him, while it causes the sex drive and genitals of Christian men to wither.

This simple cartoon may explain why the Muslim population is exploding around the world (in any meaning you choose to take that) and Western populations are shrinking. Maybe the Mormons have it right--coffee is eeeeevil!

Or maybe the Prophet Mohammed was just a whack job, and British men had queer ways in the 17th century (in any meaning you choose to take that).

To see more Brandon's artwork, visit his website by clicking here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Everyone's a suspect, even the chimpanzee!

Curtain at Eight (aka "Backstage Mystery") (1933)
Starring: C. Aubrey Smith, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Dorothy Mackaill, Natalie Moorehead, Herman Bing, Russell Hopton, and Syd Saylor
Director: E. Mason Hopper
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the lights are suddenly turned off, obnoxious stage actor Wylie Thornton (Cavanagh) is shot to death at his own backstage birthday party. Homicide detectives Havney and Gallagher (Smith and Hardy) have their work cut out for them, as everyone in the building--including the trick-shooting trained chimp--had numerous reasons for wanting Thornton dead.

"Curtain at Eight" is a neat mystery film that meticulously sets up its suspects and murder victims in the first half, including the gun-wielding chimp, and then unleashes an odd-couple of detectives on them during its second half. It's the standard formula for this genre and it's well implemented here, even if the second half is just a little bit too comedic for my tastes.

Stars Paul Cavanagh (as the womanizing, self-centered actor who is his own biggest fan), C. Aubrey Smith (as the experienced, sharp-eyed and sharp-minded police detective), and Sam Hardy (as the inexperienced, dimwitted colleague he has been saddled with) are all perfect in their parts. While Hardy is at times a bit too much to take with his moronic cop antics, more effective comedic bits come from supporting players Herman Bing and Syd Saylor helps the more unpalatable aspects of his character easier to swallow. The steady parade of 1930s eye candy provided by the stylish female members of the cast also goes a long way to making the film enjoyable for fans of old time movies.

And, of course, it's a must-see if you are as obsessed with monkeys and apes as low-budget movie producers in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to be. This one, the ape is actually a real ape, rather than some guy in a suit. And even if you aren't obsessed with apes, I think this might be a film that will stick in your head as "the one where the chimp as a gun".

"Curtain at Eight" was one of the many movies from small studios of the 1930s that was considered lost. A print was uncovered, however, when the advent of DVDs (and the relatively cheap and easy duplication methods involved, once a film's been digitized) sent people scurrying into attics, basements, janitorial closets, and dusty vaults looking for misplaced movies. I recommend you take advantage of this digital age to experience that which was lost and now has been found. It's a pleasant way to spend an hour.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Thanksgiving Birds

Getting a turkey for the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner wasn't always as easy as Adele August makes it look.

The early settlers in the United States, the Pilgrims, had to struggle for food and survival. If left to their own devices, they might well have starved to death.

Fortunately, the Wampanoag Indian tribe came to the aid of the Pilgrims. In 1621, the two communities shared a Thanksgiving feast that started a tradition that continues nearly 400 years later.

On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans gather with friends and families to give thanks for the bountiful blessings in our lives and to admire great-looking birds.

I hope all my American readers have a pleasant and safe Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family tomorrow. The hope of a safe day goes double for the men and women in the military and law enforcement who put themselves on the line to protect the rest of us.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mohammed Monday: Silly Mo!

The cartoon below originally appeared on this blog as part of the international celebration of freedom of expression that was Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. It makes me wonder who is sillier... Mohammed or the idol-worshipers (the Mo-rons) who threaten to murder anyone who draws a picture of their false god.

For those new in these parts, Mohammed Mondays will continue at least through the end of 2010. It was started as a response to psychopathic Muslims and Mo-rons and their enablers in the American press forcing the lady who inspired Everybody Draw Mohammed Day into hiding. Click here for background information.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

'The Mystery Train' deserves attention

The Mystery Train (1931)
Starring: Marceline Day, Hedda Hopper, Nick Stuart, Al Cooke, Carol Tevis, and Bryant Washburn
Director: Phil Whitman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Sociopathic socialite Marion Radcliffe (Hopper) helps Joan (Day), a beautiful convicted criminal, escape from custody and makes her part of an elaborate scheme to force her to marry millionaire bachelor Ronald Stanthorpe (Stuart). Marion hopes to gain control of Ronald's fortune to replace her own lost fortune, but her plans start to unravel when Joan and Ronald truly fall in love, and it turns out that Joan was actually framed for her supposed crime and the authorities are not seeking her to put in her prison but to exonerate her.

"The Mystery Train" is an intrigue- and action-packed tale that packs more romance, comedy, and suspense into its 62-minute running time than many movies with twice the length manage to offer. The script is tight and lean, with not a scrap of padding in evidence as its characters move through the effectively paced and well-filmed scenes and story twists involving a train wreck, blackmail, cat-and-mouse with police detectives, stolen jewels... all of it leading to a suspenseful climax on a runaway, decoupled passenger train car that is carrying both heroes and villains to a certain doom.

Hedda Hopper does a nice job playing the vicious, scheming Radcliffe and Marceline Day is perfect as the innocent girl she is trying to use as her way back to unlimited wealth. Nick Stuart is a notch above the usual male leads in films like this, coming across as likable and charming rather than annoying or bland as is typical. The comic relief has even held up better to the passage of time than that in most B-movies of this vintage, with Al Cooke and Carol Tevis playing a pair of train-riding, barely newlyweds whose marriage is already on the rocks.

But this film isn't as good as it is just because because of the talented cast being served by a well-written script. Unlike many other films from this period set on trains, some effort was actually made by the director and effects people to make it seem like the actors are actually onboard a train. Using sound and motion, and even some unsteady steps as actors move through hallways, laudable and successful attempts to create the illusion of being on a moving train are made.

All in all, "The Mystery Train" is one of the many movies from the early days of talkies that doesn't deserve the obscurity it fell into. I recommend it to lovers of classic detective stories and dramas.

Friday, November 19, 2010

'The Maltese Falcon' is a mystery classic

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Gladys George, and Elisha Cook Jr.
Director: John Huston
Rating: Ten of Ten Starts

When private detective Sam Spade (Bogart) tries to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of his partner, he finds himself drawn into a struggle between eccentric treasure hunters (Greenstreet and Lorre) and a beautiful con artist who may or may not also be a coldhearted killer (Astor). At stake is the Maltese Falcon, a treasure of almost unimaginable value.

"The Maltese Falcon" is one of the few movies that truly deserves the label "classic." It's a perfectly paced detective story, with just the right mix of suspense and humor to bring out the maximum effectiveness of both elements as they play off each other.

The characters are quirky and unpredictable to the point where the final outcome of the story remains in question until the final few minutes of the film, and each actor is perfectly cast in their role. Even better, every line of dialogue is perfectly crafted and delivered with spot-on timing.

In fact, everything in this film is about as perfect as a film could possibly be. If you're a fan of the hardboiled detective genre or mysteries in general and you haven't yet seen this masterpiece, you owe it to yourself to change that.

Humphrey Bogart as the deeply flawed hero Sam Spade is particularly excellent in the part, as a man with questionable moral values yet a firm personal code of honor who finds a woman (Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy) who at first seems capable of bringing out the best in him, but who ultimately may end up bringing out the absolute worst in him. While Spade is constantly fighting verbally and physically with the Lorre, Cook and Greenstreet's villains, it is Brigid who is Spade's main foil and she turns out to be one of the screen's greatest femme fatales, because Astor brings a vulnerability to a character who may be the hardest of any of the hard cases that populate this story that goes a long way to keeping the mysteries swirling through the plot open questions until the very end. As amusing and dramatic as Lorre and Greenstreet's performances are, it is Astor who is the true driver of the story, providing a great portrayal of a character that is almost as important as Bogart's Sam Spade when it comes to the success of this film.

There are only a handful of movies that I've watched more than once. "The Maltese Falcon" is one of those. Check it out, and I'm sure you'll see why.

Trivia: "The Maltese Falcon" was the third adaptation of the Hammett novel by the same title. This goes to show that not all remakes are bad. Some are even improvements on the original film. (Although, by all accounts, the 1931 and 1936 versions are pretty good, too, with the 19365 version being a spoof. I haven't seen either of those older movies yet, but both other versions are included in the DVD edition I've linked to above while the Blue-Ray edition only includes the 1936 comedy version, "Satan Met a Lady".)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Attack of the Astro-Zombies!

Astro-Zombies are murderous, science-created monsters that have been featured in three (so far) movies from B-movie auteur Ted V. Mikels. You can click here to read about the production of 2002 film "Mark of the Astro-Zombies", and here to read my reviews of both "Astro-Zombies" and "Mark of the Astro-Zombies".

Here's the best Astro-Zombie art from a gallery that is located at www.tedvmikels.com. Dating from around 2003, the illustrations are by some of the best comic book artists working then and now. You can click on the individual illos to see larger versions, and if the artist has a website with more of his work, click on his name to visit it.

No matter what you might think of Mikels' movies, these are great drawings.

By "Buzz"
By Adam Hughes
By Frank Brunner
By Mike Hoffman
By Jerry Bingham
By Sal Velluto

By Mike Grell
By Norm Breyfogle

By Mike Deodato Jr.
By Kevin Conrad
By Tom Nguyen