Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday: The Easter Angel

Actress Heather Angel is is a very attractive easter bunny in this 1933 publicity still. (It was acquired from this picture blog.)

I hope all my readers have a nice and peaceful Easter holiday.

Monday, March 29, 2010

'Tyranny Rex' is a fun read

Tyranny Rex
Writer: John Smith and Chris Standley (with Steve Dillon)
Art: Steve Dillon and Will Simpson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Tyranny Rex is a sexy Sauran, a human-appearing reptillian species. She is a celebrity performance artist and "trouble-shooter" who moves back and forth across the boundaries between legal and illegal as she sees fit. She is wanted for crimes and random mayhem in some starsystems, while she is just wanted in others.

The "Tyranny Rex" graphic novel reprints the earliest "Tyranny Rex" stories from the long-running British sci-fi comic magazine "2000 AD." They feature an equal mix of humor and action, and they're all fun reads, as Tyranny moves from making illegal clones of classic rock stars, protects Vid-stars from psychotic fans, and defending her body-sculptures from psychic cowboys. Although the book seems to end Tyranny's story quite nicely, the character appeared in several additional installments of the comic series, as well as a few short stories by creator John Smith.

The "Tyranny Rex" graphic novel might be a bit hard to find, but if you can get a copy, I think you'll be entertained. You might want to look particularly hard for it if you're a Steve Dillon fan, as the first half of the book is illustrated by him, and they are full of the sort of gross physcial humor and comedic violence that he has become known for through titles published at Marvel Comcis and the DC Comics imprint Vertigo. (This is early Dillon art, so his style is still a bit rough, but he was good even back in the late 1980s, the period from which these "Tyranny Rex" stories date.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Coming Soon:
The 65th Anniversary of Nazi Defeat

2010 makes 65 years since Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany were defeated and consigned to history's garbage dump. Between April 5 and May 7, I will be celebrating this milestone with reviews across my various blogs, with this one getting a wealth of reviews of movies dating from those days, reviews of war comics from the 1960s and 1970s, and images on Picture Perfect Wednesdays.

If you've got a review blog and would like to mark the passing of one of the most evil regimes the world has ever known with reviews and posts, send me a link to your blog and I will post it at "Cinema Steve." The same is true of any specific posts you make. Just send an email with links to with "Nazis Quit" in the header.

Meanwhile, you can check already-posted reviews of films spotlighting the German Ubermenchen (that somehow still managed to get their asses kicked by us mud people) by clicking here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

'Day of the Nightmare' is full of twists

Day of the Nightmare (1965)
Starring: Beverly Bain, Cliff Fields, John Ireland and John Hart
Director: John A. Bushelman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

As her artist husband (Fields) grows more aloof, Barbara (Bain) starts to grow concerned for the health of her marriage. She soon has bigger things to worry about, as he first becomes a murder suspect... and then she immediately thereafter almost is stabbed to death by his supposed victim.

"Day of the Nightmare" features the foundation of a decent thriller, with a story constructed with enough intelligence to know not to bother concealing something which is obvious to alert audience members almost immediately (Barbara's husband is a Norman Bates-style maniac and the "murder victim" is actually his second personality), but it's done in by languid pacing and terribly undramatic camerawork and lighting. The film called for deep shadows and quirky camera angles, but instead we get cinematography that would have been better suited for an industrial educational film.

The acting is also mostly mediocre, with John Ireland (as a homicide detective looking for a murder victim that doesn't exist) seeming tired and bored and Cliff Fields (as the hubby leading more than just one double life) seeming like he needed to take a few more acting lessons.

The one exception is Beverly Bain. Whether she is portraying Barbara as the perfect early 1960s American housewife, as trying to come grips with the possibility her husband has killed his mistress, or fleeing an insane, knife-wielding cross-dressing phantom, she gives a performance far better than anything else in the film. This is her only film credit, which is a shame. There is quite a bit of talent on display here. (But no flesh; she is the only attractive female in the movie who doesn't appear topless.)

But Bain's performance alone is not enough to save this film. She, combined with the well executed story, will carry you through it, but the weak acting and inappropriate tone of the cinematography, put this movie firmly in the category of Bad.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Louise Brooks, Classic Bird

Louise Brooks was a fashion trend-setter in the 1920s, with her bobbed hairstype being widely imitated after she began appearing in film. Often, when someone says "flapper style," they are picturing Louise Brooks.

Brooks only appeared in a couple dozen features. Some sources say her career suffered because she refused to bend to the will of the studio system. Other sources say that her career was damaged by working in European for a couple of years during the late 1920s. Others claim that the fact she posed for a number of nude photos as a young dancer--a choice that Brooks later said had been a tremendous mistake. Finally, her death of career is attributed to her involvement with the Philo Vance Picture "The Canary Murder Case."

Starring William Powell as Philo Vance and Brooks as a blackmailing nightclub singer who ends up murdered, it was originally shot as a slient movie in 1928, but Paramount executives decided to rework the film as a talkie and called the actors back to loop their lines. When Brooks refused to cooperate, it gave her a bad reputation and she never worked for a major Hollywood studio again.

"The Canary Murder Case" was a hit, even if Brooks didn't receieve a career boost from it. However, some great publicity stills for the film exist, featuring the lovely Louise Brooks as the nefarious and ill-fated Canary.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beware the secretary too good to be true....

The Inner Circle (1946)
Starring: Warren Douglas, Adele Mara, William Frawley and Virginia Christine
Director: Phil Ford
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a mysterious veiled woman frames private detective Johnny Strange (Douglas) for the murder of a much-loathed radio reporter, his equally mysterious secretary (Mara) is ready with just the right lie to clear him. But Lt. Webb of the homicide department (Frawley) isn't buying it, and Johnny has to race against time to find the real killer.

"The Inner Circle" is a light-weight, slightly goofy mystery film that's the cinematic equavelent of an apple--it's a quick, inoffensive snack. Average acting, simple script, and an okay mystery plot (that keeps it together to the end, but then falls apart), it's not a bad way to spend an hour, but it's not an experience you'll remember. The most interesting thing about it is William Frawley as a sort-of proto-Columbo whose main investigative technique seems to be to annoy suspects into confessing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

'Voodoo Man' is full of stars and weirdness

Voodoo Man (1944)
Starring: Michael Ames, Louise Currie, Wanda McKay, Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Henry Hall and Ellen Hall
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Five of Ten Stars (if meant to be a serious movie); Seven of Ten Stars (if meant to be a spoof)

Women are vanishing along a lonely stretch of highway... and the latest victims are a brides maid and a bride-to-be (McKay and Currie). Can a Hollywood screenwriter (Ames) rise to the challenge and face the real-life menace of the Voodoo Man (Lugosi) and minions (which include Zucco and Carradine)?

There are some movies that are so bad they become good. "Voodoo Man" may be one of those. In fact, it's so strange and over-the-top that I'm not sure it was ever intended to be taken seriously; the numerous in-jokes sprinkled throughout the film--starting with the main character being a writer for Banner Productions (the company that produced the film), with a boss named S.K. (Sam Katzman was the chief executive and lead producer at Banner) and the many sly references to other successful zombie movies of the day, such as the Lugosi-starring "White Zombie" from a decade earlier and the 1943 hit "I Walked With a Zombie". Then there's the absolute goofiness of George Zucco's gas station-owning voodoo priest, a character that even within the bizarre reality that exists within every Monogram picture is so outrageous that I can't believe he was supposed to be taken seriously. And then there's the absolutely ineffectual "hero" of the picture, the screenwriter who spends the film's climactic moments unconcious while the sheriff and his dimwitted deputy save the day.

Also, thinking of the film as more of a spoof than a serious attempt at making a horror movie also makes Zucco and John Carradine look a little less pathetic in the picture. By pathetic, I'm not referring to their performances, but to the fact they are playing the characters they do. If the film was intended to be a serious movie, then I feel sad for the state of both their finances that they were reduced to playing a cartoon character in a silly hat (Zucco) and a dimwitted pervert who walked like he had just crapped his pants (Carradine). How desperate must they have been to not walk away from parts like that, even if they had iron-clad, multi-picture contracts with Monogram-related production entities--could Carradine's theater projects REALLY have been that in need of money that he had to stoop this low? If treated as a serious movie, Carradine and Zucco both give performances that mark low points in their careers and that their families should STILL be embarrassed about. However, if they are playing in a comedy, then they're not half bad. (And whether a serious movie or not, Carradine's character undoubtedly found a place among the beatniks a few years later... that cat can beat the drum, man.

Whether a comedy or not, Bela Lugosi is the solid core of the film, an absolute straight man at the heart of the silly weirdness of the rest of the movie. Yeah, he may be a mad scientist who dresses funny for voodoo rituals, but the scene where the mumbo-jumbo briefly pays off by reviving his braindead wife's soul is a genuinely touching and ultimately heartbreaking moment that is worthy of more serious drama. (In fact, Lugosi is the only reason I'm even wavering in my belief that this is a comedy. In films like "Scared to Death" and "You'll Find Out", he is clearly playing in a comedic style, but here he is at his most dramatic and serious.

Also, whether this is a comedy or not, it is quite the star-studded feature and that alone makes it worth checking out for fans of old movies, especially if you have a taste for the quirky. Not only do you have Lugosi, Zucco and Carradine, but you are also treated to performances by the very lovely Wanda McKay and Louise Currie. Both were regular leading ladies and supporting actresses in low-budget thrillers and comedies during the 1930s and 1940s, and with McKay in particular one has to wonder why she never managed to make it to "the big time". She is every bit as attractive and talented as any number of ladies appearing in Universal, RKO and MGM B-movies of the time... and she even has a few A-listers beat.

Moreso than usual, I'd love to hear your take on this film. Is it a comedy or just a complete misfire in the horror department? What do you think?

If you decide to check out "Voodoo Man", I recommend you get the edition released by Mike Nelson's "Riff Trax"/Legend Films edition. It contains the movie and an optional second audio track where the three stars of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" engage in mockery and commentary as funny as anything they did in the old days. After some dissapointing efforts from them as "The Film Crew," they seem to have gotten their groove back. (And if you do get this version, make sure to let the menu screen play a while. There's a great song inspired by "Voodoo Man" that plays. It's almost worth the price of admission by itself.)


Sunday, March 21, 2010

'Young Frankenstein' is timeless spoof

Young Frankenstein (1974)
Starring: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Khan, and Cloris Leachman
Director: Mel Brooks
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder), after spending his youth trying to live down his family's reputation as a bunch of mad scientists and nutty monster-makers, inherits his grandfather's castle and original laboratory... and ends up trying his hand at being a mad scientist and creating monsters. With an illiterate hunchback (Feldman) and a nurse who is well-endowed in every department but brains (Garr), he creates a monster that his grandfather, father, uncles, aunts, cousins, and other mad-scientist relations would be envious of. But can the torch-wielding peasants be far off?

"Young Frankenstein" is one of the all-time classic comedies. Like "High Anxiety", Mel Brooks' spoof of Alfred Hitchcock movies, this film is shows a great affection and respect for the material it is poking fun at--the sequels to the original "Frankenstein" film from Universal, such as "Son of Frankenstein" and "The Ghost of Frankenstein". (And let's face it... as much as we may love those pictures, we've found it worthy of mockery that every single member of the Frankenstein family--with the exception of Baroness Eva Frankenstein in "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man"--who comes into possession of the original monster-making recipe becomes obsessed with creating another one (or reviving the original creature).

And Brook makes fun of all the unintentional hilarious bits of the various Universal Frankentein sequels, makes some of the non-harlious bits--Inspector Krogh from "Son of Frankenstein", a very well-acted, well-written, if idiosyncratic character, that I think it the best part of that film--the objects of spot-on and hilarious lampooning.

While the film's success can be credited in a large part to its hilarious script--which provies a non-stop flow of puns, sight-gags, and insane nonsequitors within the frame of a story that could easily have been featured in a Frankenstein movie from the 1940s--and the best-of-their-careers performances from Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Teri Garr, the fact that Brooks took pains to match the sets, filming techniques, and lighting-styles of the Frankenstein films he's parodying makes this the truly exceptional and effective comedy that it is.

"Young Frankenstein" is a movie for fans of the classic Universal films and lovers of well-crafted satire alike. It is one of Mel Brooks' finest films, and every actor featured is likewise is at their very finest. (Also, where else are you going to see Frankenstein's Monster perform "Putting on the Ritz"?)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Sucker Money' shows dark side of psychics

Sucker Money (1933)
Starring: Earl McCarthy, Mischa Auer, Phyllis Barrington and Mae Busch
Directors: Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Jimmy (McCarthy), an actor-turned-newspaper reporter, infiltrates a group of confidence artists who are running an elaborate phony psychic operation, he gets more than just the material for a great expose: He finds romance in the form of beautiful Ms. Walton (Barrington), one of the targets of the bad guys, and he finds danger at the hands of the murderous leader of the gang, Swami Yomurda (Auer) when his cover is blown.

"Sucker Money" is a fine, fast-paced little reporter-saves-the-day-and-the-girl and self-declared "expose" film of the phony psychic racket (which, given the number of movies that were made with this theme during the 1930s and 1940s, I can only assume was quite widespread). The set-up is a bit weak--a criminal enterprise as elaborate and organized as the one presented in this film wouldn't turn to the want ads when it came to hiring new help--but that bit of nonsense aside, the film is engaging, well-acted, and well-filmed... even if it feels and looks a bit too much like a silent movie at times. (There's also the minor issue with the reporter wearing more lipstick and eyeliner than any of the women characters in the film when he's in his "acting mode". Perhaps that's to remind the audience that he's a ACTOR? Or maybe that was part of his disguise--"if they think I'm one of THOSE actors, the women won't come onto handsome ole me, and I'll get my story quicker"?

The weaknesses of the film are more than made up for by the evil Swami Yomurda (whose name is never said in the film, thank God.) Auer portrays a truly sinister and evil character, with strongly scripted actions to support him. He may be a fake psychic, but he has Svengali-like hypnotic powers, and he has no compulsion about ordering those under them to dispatch themselves by drinking poison. He does just this in the film's most startling scene. The scene alone makes the film worth watching, although the strong climax also makes it well worth your time, if you're a lover of old-fashioned crime dramas.

(Trivia: This is the second movie in which Mischa Auer played a crooked spiritualist named "Sawmi Yomurda." The first was 1932's "Sinister Hands," in which is also co-starred with Phyllis Barrington (her character in that film was a different one, however).

The two Man-Thing collections truly are essential

Some twenty years before DC Comics and Warner Bros. tumbled to the idea of marketing comics for mature readers ("mature" here meaning adults, interested in reading about adult subject matters that might be treated in serious literature, not porn), writer Steve Gerber was creating comic book tales that in many ways were more mature than the later material labled as such.

Those adults who discovered Gerber's work loved it. His stories featured three dimensional characters who battled real-world issues and real-world problems in addition to super-villains, demons, and nameless horrors from dimensions that would have scared the heck out of Lovecraft and Howard. His stories dealt timeless social and emotional issues and most of them are as relevant and fresh today as they were when they were penned 35-40 years ago.

Unfortunately, comic book readers don't really WANT to read stories that are truly written for adults, so time and again, Gerber's titles were cancelled... a fate that would follow his comics career right up until the bitter end when his truly excellent books for DC Comics, "Nevada" and "Hard Time" failed to find a large enough audience to warrant their continued publication.

Steve Gerber passed away two years ago, but his work is still here for us to enjoy. Over the past three or so years, Marvel Comics has most of Gerber's best work easily acessesible in the low-cost, massive volumes that are part of their "Essential" series. In fact, his work is easier to read not just because you'll have it collected in one spot, but because the printing quality is better and you'll actually be able to read the text-heavy pages in some of the issues. (It's still on news-print, and the ink is still prone to smearing, but it's still clearer.

It's interesting to me that Gerber wrote horror so well, as he has stated that didn't particularly care for horror stories and that he liked monsters even less. Perhaps his is why his horror stories deal with real horrors more than supernatural ones. bigotry, racism, religious extremism, broken dreams, unrealistic expectations, the ugliest manifestations of addiction, poverty, sexual abuse, censorship, politics, depression, suicide, environmentalism... all of these thing are explored in the "Man-Thing" stories that Gerber wrote, oftentimes explored with such thoughtfulness and presented through such well-done characters that almost feel as if what you're reading is too good to be mere comic books.

Gerber was writing comics that were ahead of their time, and he was writing about timeless subjects. Some of the trappings of the tales are a little dated--such as typical early 1970s hippies and biker-types--but the stories and the characters themselves are as relevant and vital as they now as they were when they were first published. If you enjoy intelligent, well-written horror tales, particularly ones that easily mixes straight-forward social commentary with satire and allegory.

Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella
Artists: Mike Ploog, Val Mayerik, John Buscema, Gray Morrow, Frank Chiaramonte, Tom Sutton,
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 1 opens with the Man-Thing earliest appearances, chroniclally the events that lead to chemist Ted Sallis being transformed into a mindless creature made of mud and vegetation from a patch of the Everglades. After a couple of adventures that teamed Man-Thing with S.H.E.I.L.D and Marvel's answer to Tarzan, Ka-Zar, against the sinister criminal organization A.I.M, we get the first glimpse of the greatness that is to come.

In a story written by Man-Thing's co-creator Gerry Conway, we learn that Man-Thing has a very strong empathic sense and that he is drawn to emotional and physical pain and misery. We also learn that fear and anger cause him pain and cause him to lash out at the source of that pain, attempting to destroy it with a supernatural ability that causes anything that feels fear to burst into flames when he touches it.(And, as probably goes without saying, most people who come face-to-face with a 7-foot-tall mud-encrusted monster with huge red eyes will fear plenty of fear... so there plenty of people who suffer lethal third-degree burns as a result of an encounter with Man-Thing.)

Although Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway created Man-Thing, it is Steve Gerber who will use the creation to its fullest potential, using Man-Thing's empathic sense to have him drawn to all sorts of situations charged with negative human emotion, thus making him a vehicle for telling stories dealing with topics as diverse as bigotry, jealousy, greed, depression and suicide.

Gerber also added the Kale family, a family of sorcerers living at the edge of the swamp in Citrusville... and in doing so, he set the stage to reveal that Man-Thing and his swamp are guardians of the Nexus of All Realities, thus giving him a free hand to include all sorts of cosmic and extestial elements to his Man-Thing yarns. Finally, he added the character of Richard Rory, a down-on-his-luck Everyman who sort of serves as a stand-in for the reader as the takes unfold; he's a kindhearted, decent and completely normal guy--well, except for having a giant swamp creature as a friend.

The mix of tales in "Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 1 move from small-scale, stories of personal horror to cosmos-spanning, reality-shattering dark fantasy adventures--one often leading to the other and back again--and each is more fascinating than the one before.

There are three main plot threads that run through the book, so, although it's very obvious the 500+ pages were originallty published in chunks of 12 or 22 pages because each presents a finite episode, you'll still feel as if you're reading something that was intended to read as a coherent whole.

The first thread deals with Jennifer Kale's maturation into a sorceress and inheriting her family's duty to help protect the Nexus of All Realities. Jennifer and her extra-dimensional teacher, Dakhim the Enchanter, become the wellspring of all sorts of cosmic nightmares for Man-Thing and those who enter his swamp.

The second thread deals with construction baron and real estate tycoon F.A. Schist (not one of Gerber's most subtley named characters) and his efforts to first drain the swamp to build an airport and later gain revenge upon the Man-Thing for ruining his business. After Schist comes to a very bad and very final end, his family picks up the revenge quest. The Schist storyline is used to explore such diverse topics as environmentalism, bigotry, the dangers of excessive greed, and the self-destructive nature of obsession. Although Schist more often than not comes across as a cartoonish villain, most characters around him are quite three dimensional and even Schist has a few moments of depth.

The third thread deals with Richard Rory's ongoing attempts to make a new life for himself in Citrusville while trying to deal with all the crazy and nightmarish situations he is drawn into. He is a recurring secondary character for most of this book, but his important grows as it wears on, and in Volume 2, he takes center stage for real.

The three story threads weave in and out of each other and the various stand-alone episodes present in the book, giving it a unified feel, a feel that is made stronger by the fact that the final comics story presented in the book harkens back to the very first Man-Thing tale, as it resolves the fate of Ellen Brandt, the woman whose treachery led to Ted Sallis becoming the Man-Thing.

Between the two end pieces and the three running plots, readers are treated some of the most interesting stories Gerber ever wrote, such as "Night of the Laughing Dead", a tale of depression, suicide, and cosmic balance; and the two-part introduction of the Fool-Killer, a tale of religious fanaticism and vigilantism that was written partly as a spoof of the popular Marvel Comics character the Punisher.

And Gerber's Man-Thing stories continue to get better with time, with more greatness following in "Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 2.

It's not just the writing in the book that's so remarkable. We're treated to some great art from Mike Ploog (whose Will Eisner-inspired style lends itself perfectly to the water-logged Everglades swamp where most of the stories take place), Val Mayerik, and John Buscema. There are other minor contributors, but those three gentlemen produce some truly gorgeous pages. (Mayerik's art suffers a little bit due to the lack of colors in this black-and-white reprint volume, but Ploog and Buscema's art shines.)

"Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 1 is a book bursting with true classics of the comics genre. It's a must-own for affeciandos of the genre, or for anyone who loves intelligent, well-written horror tales.

Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 2 (Marvel Comics)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Mike Friedrich, Marv Wolfman, J.M. DeMattias and Dickie McKenzie
Artits: Jim Mooney, Don Perlin, Bob Wiacek, John Buscema, John Byrne, Tom Sutton, et. al
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
"Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 2 picks up where Vol 1 left off, finishing out the first "Man-Thing" series and the rest of the original Man-Thing stories penned by Steve Gerber.

Like the first volume, the tales mix episodic horror with social commentary and satire. The cosmic nature of the stories has mostly been dailed back with storylines about alienation, bigotry and censorship. The mystic Kale family has stepped into the background while hardluck case Richard Rory and some very darkhearted but seemingly-average citizens of Citrusville become the focus of the ongoing storylines. Gerber starts cranking up the cosmic madness in the tales that orginally appeared in "Man-Thing" #20 and #21, but the full scope of the story he was trying to tell, Marvel pulled the plug on the title. However, Gerber made lemonade with the lemons, and the final issue of the series summarized a story that might have spanned three or four issues within a tale that featured Gerber himself as a character and brought the series to a conclusion unlike any other that had previously been seen. Few titles that are cancelled go out on such a high note as "Man-Thing" did.

The Gerber material takes up about half the book,and once it's done, there's a very steep drop in quality.

First off, a bad editorial decision was made to include the team-up between Man-Thing, Captain America and the Thing from "Marvel Two-In-One", as it is a fragment of a much larger storyline and makes little sense on its own when they should have included "Giant-Sized Spider-Man" #5, which detailed Spider-Man's first meeting with Man-Thing and to which the story reprinted from "Marvel Team-Up" #68 is a sequel and makes frequent reference to that previous tale.

Secondly, when Marvel gave Man-Thing another shot at his own title in 1979, with Michael Fleisher and Chris Claremont handling the writing chores, the book was a pale imitation of the first Man-Thing series. Fleisher and Claremont tried to copy Gerber's style, and they failed at every turn, turning in ten issues of suspense comics that are barely above average in quality. To make matters worse, the majority of the issues were illustrated by the team of Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek, competent artists but whose styles are too streamlined and clean to effectively captaure Man-Thing and the vine-choked swamp he dwells in.

Altough not as "essential" as the first volume of "Essential Man-Thing", this book is still well-worth owning for anyone who likes intelligently written horror comics.

(For your information, another Steve Gerber horror milestone was collected two years ago in "Essential Tales of Zombie". I recommend that book as highly as I do the "Essential Man-Thing" volumes. Click here to read that review.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Lionel Atwill holds secret of 'The Sphinx'

The Sphinx (1933)
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Theodore Newton, Sheila Terry, Paul Hurst, Robert Ellis and Lucien Prival
Director: Phil Rosen
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Stock brokers are being murdered and eye-witnesses are certain the killer is Jerome Breen (Atwill), because he took the time to chat with them as he casually strolled away from the crime scene. However, Breen can't be the killer, because he is deaf-mute who was born unable to produce any sound at all. Will bumbling police inspectors (Ellis and Hurst), together with crimebeat reporter Jack Burton (Newton) be able to unlock the secrets behind the murders? More importantly, will they solve the mystery in time to prevent Burton's would-be lady love (Terry) from joining the list of those murdered?

"The Sphinx" is a straight-to-the-point murder mystery with a twist that all but the most inexperienced mystery fans will see coming. In fact, I think the best audience for this film today is to use as a gateway to other classic mystery films for kids who are reading "The Three Detectives", "Nancy Drew" or "The Hardy Boys" (or whatever more contemporary counterparts they may have in the kid's section of the local bookstore). It's a fast-paced film that crams two hours worth of plot into a one-hour running time.

Another thing to recommend this film as an entry point is the characters. While the 1930s stock characters are here--dumb Irish cops and fast-talking tough-guy reporter as the heroes/comic relief, the plucky girl society columnist who will become the damsel in distress, and so on--they feel a little more real than in most films. More importantly, none seem as obnoxious as they sometimes do in these films, partly due to the inherent charisma and on-screen chemistry of all members of the exceptionally talented cast, but also because each character is given a bit more depth than is often the case. (For example, the hard-bitten reporter is shown to have respect for the cops even while ribbing them, and to have genuine feelings and a purely human reaction when his would-be bride turns her back on him.)

"The Sphinx" is by no means a classic, nor is it one that hardcore mystery fans are likely to be overly impressed by. It's got a good cast, and decent script, but the solution to mystery is one that they're likely to see coming. It might not be a bad little movie to show to the right kid, however.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Picture Perfect Thursday...?

A scene from "Silent But Deadly."

Ed Wood Double-Feature

Here are a pair of films from Edward D. Wood Jr, one that is almost a landmark and the other one of his better efforts. Consider this post part of a much-needed "setting the record straight" as to what film is a sequel to what film. (And don't trust the opinion of anyone who tells you about the sequel to "Plan 9 From Outer Space.")

Bride of the Monster (aka "Bride of the Atom") (1955)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Loretta King, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Harvey Dunn, Paul Marco and George Becwar
Director: Edward D. Wood
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A mad scientist (Lugosi) captures those that venture too close to his dilapidated house and subjects them to experiments intended to create a new race of radioactive supermen. When he captures a nosey female tabloid reporter (King) can it be long before his simpleminded assistant (Johnson) falls in love with her and turns on him?

Still from 'Bride of the Monster' (1955)
"Bride of the Monster" is one of those movies that's so bad it's fun to watch if you're in the right mood and with the right group of friends. It's perfect to include in the line-up for a Bad Movie Night, because it's full of strange characters that are badly acted, situations that are badly explained and sets that are badly made, but it moves fast and has just enough redeeming features that it will keep you entertaining and laughing. (What's more, the story actually makes some degree of sense, assuming you buy into the whole mad scientist creating atomic monsters thing.)

But this is also a sad movie. Sad because it features an old and broken-down Bela Lugosi so prominently. When watching this movie, I feel the same sort of sorrow I felt while watching Peter Cushing in "The Masks of Death", because in both cases the ravages of age and illness are so visible on both men. It's sad to see such great talent at the point where it is about to be taken from the world forever. Lugosi's presence in this film is made twice as tragic because it's such a shoddy piece of work and because of a clumsily executed homage to one of Lugosi's greatest films, "White Zombie". (There are extreme close-ups of Lugosi's eyes, he does the same weird hand gestures he did while playing the Zombie Master, and the female victim appears hypnotized in a flowing white gown. Unfortunately, Lugosi's eyes look as old and tired as he is, the hand gesture seems out of place, and the gown is nowhere as stylish as the one in "White Zombie".)

Although Lugosi fans will feel a twinge of sadness to see him in this movie, they can take heart in the fact that he is treated better by both the script and the director than he was in any other of the films he did in his last decade on Earth. They can also take heart in the fact that Lugosi gets to act in this film. Wood lets him show a greater range than any role Lugosi had played since "The Black Cat" and "Son of Frankenstein".

No matter how old and frail Lugosi appears in this film, no matter how cheap and pathetic the quality of the sets around him, there is no denying that he gives a powerful performance.

Reportedly, Ed Wood promised Lugosi that "Bride of the Monster" would return him to stardom, and he certainly did all he could to deliver on that promise. Lugosi's scenes with George Becwar--where we learn of his character's tragic past and the depths of his madness--is great stuff. It's perhaps the best scene that Wood ever filmed. In fact, every scene that features Lugosi in this movie probably ranks among the best Wood ever filmed, and the weakness of the rest of the cast only helps to accentuate that even as a broken old man, Lugosi was an actor with great ability.

The scenes and the strange police captain and his pet bird in "Bride of the Monster" are really all the evidence that one should need to put a lie to the claim that Wood is the worst director ever. It takes actually watching the film to realize this, though. That said, this would be a far better viewing experience if someone actually knew how to edit a film properly took a crack at reworking it.

(As a sad footnote, even if this film had been good enough to restart Lugosi's film career as Ed Wood believed, Lugosi passed away in August of 1956.)

Night of the Ghouls (aka "Revenge of the Dead") (1959)
Starring: Criswell, Duke Moore, Kenne Duncan, Valda Hansen, Paul Marco, Tor Johnson, Johnny Carpenter, Jeannie Stevens, and Bud Osborne
Director: Edward D. Wood, Jr
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A conman posing as a medium (Duncan) has set up shop in the old mansion where a mad scientist used to make his monsters. Lt Bradford (Moore) the police department's unofficial expert on the supernatural goes to investigate. The medium may be a fake, but who is that strange woman in black who kills teenagers who are make out in the nearby woods? And who is the woman in white who appears and disappears at will? Given that this is a film from the mind of Eddie Wood, will be ever find out?!

"Night of the Ghouls" has been described to me, by someone who's watched more Ed Wood films than any sane person should, as the best film he ever made. For most of the film's running time, I thought my friend had to be crazy to make such a claim, but the scenes grafted into the film from a early Wood horror short titled "Final Curtain" and the film's climactic minutes are actually pretty creepy. Yes... Ed Wood DOES manage to invoke a sense of dread instead of just making something dreadful. (And he even throws in a twist ending that no one will see coming.)

Wood also seemed to have made more of an attempt to maintain an internal continuity in this film than he has in any other of his film's I've seen. It's reflected in the fact that Lt. Bradford is on his way to enjoy a night at the opera when he is called to investigate the strange going-ons at the old house... so he goes on his assignment in evening dress, so his clothes match those he wore in the scenes taken from "Final Curtain" and placed here.

This being a film from Ed Wood, however, one can't expect attention to detail taken too far, now can we? Wood may have done a stellar job (by his standards) on maintaining this film's internal continuity, but he screwed up in almost every way when we look at the big picture it's part of.

"Night of the Ghouls" is the sequel to "Bride of the Monster", but the only details he gets right between the two films is that the comic relief character played by Paul Marco is named Patrolman Kelton, the hulking manbeast is named Lobo, and there was a mad scientist who once lived in a house and made monsters. He gets Bradford's name wrong (it was Lt. Craig), the location of the house wrong (it wasn't by Lake Willow but rather by Marsh Lake on Willow Road), and Lobo was very much dead at the end of "Bride". (That last one might not be a mistake, given some of the revelations that take place late in "Night", but I have a hard time giving Wood the benefit of the doubt.)

"Night of the Ghouls" is another sad little movie from Edward D. Wood, Jr. Unlike most of his output, this film actually does manage to achieve what he was going for in a couple of spots. Interestingly, some of those bits were scavenged from an earlier movie, one that Wood perhaps spent more time on than he did his other efforts. Plus, as mentioned, Wood actually tries to maintain continuity from scene to scene. On the very heavy downside, though, the film meanders and wanders through its storyline worse than "Plan 9 From Outer Space". Most people with better things to do than watch Ed Wood movies will probably not even GET to the good parts, because they'll have turned the movie off, because it doesn't seem to hold a focus for more than a minute at a time. The wandering nature of the screenplay drags the film down from a low 5 to a low 4.

Yes, this may well be Ed Wood's finest effort--I still think that honor probably goes to "Glen or Glenda?" but I understand my friend's point having sat through the film. I also consider this another bit of evidence that Wood WASN'T the world's worst director. That's not to say you'll miss anything if you spend your time watching something else!

(Speaking of watching something else.... Remember how I said that this is a sequel to "Bride of the Monster"? Some who like to pass themselves off as film critics or reviewers have stated it's a sequel to "Plan 9 from Outer Space". If you come across someone making that claim, you are witnessing an idiot in action. And he or she is a lazy idiot, because anyone who WATCHES "Night of Ghouls" who has also seen "Bride of the Monster" will easily pick up on the connection. There are NO links to "Plan 9" in this film, as far as the story goes.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hitchcock is at his finest with
'The Lady Vanishes'

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, and May Witty
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Returning by train to England from a vacation in a small European country, Iris (Lockwood) befriends the elderly Ms. Froy (Witty). When Ms. Froy disappears from the moving train, Iris suspects foul play, but no one other than Iris seems to have ever noticed the woman. Is Iris losing her mind, or is something sinister unfolding, something sinister that perhaps even her charming would-be suitor Gilbert (Redgrave) is part of?

"The Lady Vanishes" is one of Hitchcock's best movies. It features stars that generate fabulous chemistry on screen, an excellent supporting cast (the two cricket-loving Englishmen provide some of the funniest moments in any Hitchcock movie, including those that were promoted as pure comedies).

The movie is remarkable, because it's got a romantic comedy air about it, and it's an atmosphere that never quite dissipates even as the tension and mystery about the fate (or even the very existence) of Ms. Froy grows. The story moves from the sinister environment of a suspense thriller back to a more lighthearted, comedic sensibility with such effortless grace that whether your in the mood for a comedy, a mystery, or a thriller, "The Lady Vanishes" will leave you satisfied.

This film should be on any True Movie Geek's "Must See"/"Have Seen" list.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Kiss me, I'm Irish!

Born Christmas Day, 1929, Irish McCalla was a pin-up model-turned-actress who is best remembered for her roles in "She Demons," "Hands of a Stranger," and her starring turn as Sheena in the 1950s television series "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle." She retired from acting in 1962 and found great success as a painter. She created over 1,000 paintings and limited edition lithographs, some of which are on display at the Los Angeles. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 72.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

'I Walked with a Zombie' is
masterpiece of the unexpected

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Starring: Frances Dee, Tom Conway, James Ellison, Edith Barrett, Christine Gordon and Darby Jones
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A young Canadian nurse, Betsy (Dee), comes to the West Indies to care for the invalid wife the wife of a plantation manager (Conway). When she falls in love with her employer, Betsy determines to cure her charge, to give her beloved what she things he wants. even if she needs to use voodoo to do it.

"I Walked With a Zombie" is one of the great classics of the gothic horror genre. With spectacular visuals, characters with murky motivations and natures, dark secrets aplenty, and a pure-hearted young girl who just wants to make everything right and who naively believes she can do so, it's a picture that is far better than its cheesy title would lead you to believe. Like every film produced by Val Lewton at RKO, it's a film that breaks conventions and helped establish cinematic vocabulary that remains in use to this very day. (Lewton's films were among the first to use sound and imagary purely for the purposes of startling the viewer, such as interrupting a quiet scene with a sudden burst of sound.)

The film also succeeds because of the powerful performances by the actors involved and the expert direction by Jacques Tourneur. Too often in films of this vintage, I find myself irritated by the "insta-romance" that springs up between characters--"The Maltese Falcon" and "Notorious" are both excellent movies that are marred by such plot elements--but the pacing of "I Walked With Zombie" and the performances of by the actors are such that that the romance between Betsy and her employer seems natural and believable.

Even more moving than the story and the acting is the film's direction and cinematography. Not a second is wasted and not a scene isn't perfectly staged or shot perfectly framed. The zombie in the film is one of the most chilling to ever be featured on screen, and Betsy's trek through the sugarcane field to the voodoo ceremony is one of the finest examples of how to build dread and suspense.

Anyone who considers themselves a student of horror films MUST see this movie. This goes double if you fancy yourself a filmmaker (or some day want to be one). Don't apply the lable of "genius" to Dario Argento, George Romero and Mario Bava until you've seen how REAL geniuses made movies.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

A killer enters the 'Inner Sanctum'

Inner Sanctum (1949)
Starring: Charles Russell, Dale Belding, Mary Beth Hughes and Fritz Leiber
Director; Lew Landers
Rating: Five of Ten Rating

The generous (but quirky) operators and residents of a small-town boarding house invite a traveler stranded by washed-out roads to stay with them (Russell). However, as fate would have it, the man is a murderer, and the young son of the boarding house's owner (Belding) is the only person who can identify him to the police... if he realizes what he saw before the murderer kills him, too.

"Inner Sanctum" has a few truly tense moments, but overall it's pretty bland, predictable, and perfectly mediocre. The story is decent but unremarkable, and the characters populating it are one-dimensional stereotypes that are portrayed by average actors. Nothing's particularly bad in the film, but nothing's particularly laudible either.

The blandness of the story is heightened by the fact that the near-pointless framing sequence that establishes the tale as being told by a psychic (Leiber) in order to warn a young woman of impending doom is the most intriguing part of the film.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

'The Hoodlum' gets what he deserves

The Hoodlum (1951)
Starring: Lawrence Tierney, Edward Tierney, Marjorie Riordan, Allene Roberts, Lisa Golm and Stuard Randall
Director: Max Nosseck
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After gaining an early parole from prison, career criminal Vincent Lubeck (Tierney) goes to work for his brother's gas station. But instead of reforming, he returns to his life of crime in ways even worse than before... starting with the rape of his brother's girlfriend and culminating in an armored car heist.

"The Hoodlum" is a fairly decent "crime doesn't pay" movie where the utterly contemptable main character gets exactly what's coming to him by the end. It also features a nicely staged heist bit with a tense get-away sequence.

Unfortunately, the fimmakers blow the ending by slathering on an excessive amount of melodrama and by offering up a deus ex machina development to keep the Good Brother from making a life-altering choice. By shying away from the ending they were on track for, the writers passed up a perfect opportunity to make up for the gooey melodrama and to lift this movie to a higher level than run-of-the-mill.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Abbott and Costello do the Dark Continent

Africa Screams (1949)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Hillary Brooke, and Shemp Howard
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After dimwitted but kindhearted bookseller Stanley Livingston (Costello) is mistaken by a scheming con-woman Diane Emerson (Brook) as an Africa expert, he is brought on an African safari that supposedly is hunting for a rare giant ape, but in actuality is searching for a secret tribe of cannibals deep within the African jungle who are rich in diamonds. With Stanley's greedy co-worker Buzz (Abbott) along for the ride, much confusion, double-crossing, and slapstick routines with lions, crocodiles, and giant apes (well, a guy in a monkey suit pretending to be a giant ape) ensue.

"Africa Screams" is a funny, fairly average Abbott & Costello vehicle. Abbotts routines with Shemp Howard (of Three Stooges fame, appearing here as perhaps the most effeminate manservant ever put on screen) are highlights of the film. It remains a solid effort up to the very end, where it erupts into a wild chase scene--with cannibals, crooks, and various kinds of apes and monkeys all chasing Stanley and each other around the set while Buzz tries to make his getaway with a bag of large diamonds--that comes to a sudden halt and leaves a number of plot-threads dangling. Now, I don't expect nice little story packages from an Abbott & Costello film, but the fate of a number of characters is left unresolved, and I would have liked to see a little more in the way of wrap-up.

"Africa Screams" is recommended for Abbott & Costello fans, so long as you go in knowing it's not their best effort. However, if you're one of those oversensitive types who take offense at racism whenever possible, you might want to leave this one alone. (I already mentioned the cannibals, so I think you can guess why I'm warning you.)


Thursday, March 11, 2010

'The Devil's Hand' isn't worth holding

The Devil's Hand
(aka "The Devil's Doll" and "The Naked Goddess") (1961)
Starring: Robert Alda, Linda Christian, Neil Hamilton and Ariadna Welter
Director: William Hole, Jr.
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Good-guy Rick Turner (Alda) is lured into a Satanic cult by telepathic temptress Bianca (Christian). When he discovers the cult is responsible for his fiance's heart-trouble via a voodoo curse, Rick must choose between the cult and true love. But the voodoo-doll making cult leader, Frank (Hamilton), has ways he believes will keep Rick with the devil worshippers.

"The Devil's Hand" has some interesting aspects, and some potentially interesting plot developments (the journalist who has infiltrated the cult, the cult's ability to infitrate hospital staff, the true sorcery involved--even if Frank uses stage magician tricks to have the demon god "pass judgement" during ceremonies), but none of these are really explored.

For the most part, this is a woodenly acted melodrama where the charcters are motivated to take actions for no reason other than the script says they must... except for the black cultists; the one beating the voodoo drum and the one who simply HAS to dance whenever the beat is on. Clearly, they're motivated by natural rythm. (And even taking into account this film dates from 1961, the racist stereotype was grating here, particularly since the cult is established to be worldwide, what with Bianca encountering it in Tibet).

I say just let your fingers walk right by "The Devil's Hand".

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lovers of westerns need this book!

Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex (DC Comics, 2005)
Writers: Joe Albano and Michael Fleisher ("Billy the Kid" and "Jonah Hex" stories); Robert Kanigher ("Outlaw" stories)
Artists: Tony DeZuniga, George Moliterni, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Gil Kane,
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex" is a massive, 500-page collection of some of the finest western comics ever published. Dating from the early 1970s, a time during which DC Comics was being wildly experimental with what they were presenting in their non-superhero titles, the bulk of this book consists of the earliest appearances of the title character, the hideously scarred Civil War veteran-turned-coldblooded bounty hunter whom many believed was more demon than man.

Appearing in western anthology title "All-Star Western" (which was eventually renamed "Weird Western Tales"), the Jonah Hex series took its cues partly from the Spaghetti Westerns of the late Sixties, although the level of violence that scripters Joe Albano and Michael Fleisher presented in these stories made even the bloodiest shootouts in Sergio Leone movies seem like just another day at the kiddy pool. Likewise, the villains that Jonah Hex stalked (and was often himself stalked by) were probably among some of the worst psychos to appear in comics until everyone decided that grim and gritty was hip in the late 80s (10-15 years after Jonah started blowing away bad guys in the windswept American West). Even more interesting to me is the fact that the Hex stories manage to be both grittier and more mature that much of what was printed when such things were in vogue. And Albano, Fleisher, the artists, and editor Joe Orlando did it all while working within the strictures of the Comics Code.

The Jonah Hex character is a fascinating one. His sense of justice, devotion to setting wrongs right, unwavering code of personal honor, and Southern gentlemanliness stands in stark contrast to his appearance, to the way virtually everyone sees him, and almost everyone he comes across, be they good, evil, or merely hapless bystanders. A recurring scene in the stories is the illustration of Hex's table-manners... you'll note that he always uses a knife and fork, and that the napkin is in his lap while dining. There are also several times where his personal honor and unstated quest to put the world a-right gets him into trouble--like when he mistakes others as kindred souls.

Early Jonah Hex appearances aren't the only stories contained in the book. Two other quirky western series are presented in their entirety within this volume's pages, both appearing in the pages of "All-Star Western" before the debut of Jonah Hex.

First, there is "Outlaw", a series by comics master Robert Kanigher. It wasn't his strongest creation--and the wrap-up seems sudden and contrived--but it featured gorgeous art by Gil Kane and Jim Aparo, so it's well-worth a look. Second, there is the quirky "Billy the Kid" series by Joe Albano and Tony DeZuniga. It's not the Billy the Kid you expect, and I think this particular gunslinger probably had the worst kept secret in the Wild West. (Come to think of it... a team-up between Jonah Hex and Billy the Kid would have made for an interesting story. Maybe they'll do it in the new series, and maybe that'll make it actually worth reading.)

A second volume of Jonah Hex stories was slated a couple of years ago, but then pulled from the schedule. That's disappointing. I hope the promise of a Jonah Hex movie will result in more massive collections of Hex reprints. Seeing "Scalphunter" collected in the same fashion would also be welcomed by me.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Pat Clark, American Native

Authentically politically incorrect.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tarzan's recycled TV adventures
marred by lazy editng

Tarzan and the Trappers (1958)
Starring: Gordon Scott, Rickie Sorenson, Lesley Bradley, Maurice Marsac, Sol Gorse, William Keene and Eve Brent
Directors: Charles F. Haas and Sandy Howard
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Tarzan (Scott) stops a brutal trapper (Bradley) who has been raiding his jungle, and later finds himself the subject of a hunt staged by the trapper's vengeful brother (Gorse).

"Tarzan and Trappers" consists of two (or perhaps even parts of three) episodes of an unsold TV series, which explains not only a bizarre grouping of story threads--the first half of the movie sees Tarzan fighting one group of villains while the second half of the movie introduces a whole new set of bad guys who come in as result of his actions on the first half--but also a weird sense of chronology where on one hand it's seems clear that the main events of the movie are separated by days or weeks (and that the second half even takes place over at least two days), yet the film's denouement implies that the trappers Tarzan fought in the first half of the film were captured and convicted in the morning, the revenge plot is hatched and executed in the afternoon, and Tarzan is home for the special dinner promised to him by Jane at the film's beginning.

This chronological confusion comes about due to the slipshod way the episodes were edited together. The denouement from the first episode (the first half of the movie) was moved to the very end--the first part of the movie COULD have been a very busy, very long day--even though it really doesn't connect at all with the events of the second film. The package would have been far better served if they producers had excised all references to the dinner Jane was making, or if they had left the two episodes intact, with the first denouement where it belonged.

As far as the acting goes, everyone does a decent job in this film. Gordon Scott makes a fine Johnny Weismuller copy, although while Eva Brent certainly is pretty in her small role as Jane, she doesn't have Maureen O'Sullivan's screen presence.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Check out 'The Invisible Woman'
(if you can see her)

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

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

Just because she's invisible, doesn't mean a girl can't show off her greatest assests in this scene from The Invisible Woman.
"The Invisible Woman" was touted as a sequel to Universal's 1933 sci-fi thriller "The Invisible Man"--the first sequel, in fact. However, it has nothing in common with that movie... other than the word "invisible" in the title.

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

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

Doc has ultimate ethical conflict in 'Shock'

Shock (1946)
Starring: Vincent Price, Lynn Bari and Anabel Shaw
Director: Alfred Werker
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Dr. Cross (Price) faces the ultimate ethical conflict when he is charged with the care of the woman who can indetify him as a murderer (Shaw). Will his coldhearted mistress (Bari) spur him to committ another murder, or will he find his humanity again?

"Shock" is a thriller with an average, predictable storyline. The actors all give some pretty good performances (with Price, as the conflicted and ultimately spineless Cross, and Bari, as his evil mistress, being particularly strong), and the lighting and camera work is also decent. However, although the film only runs 70 minutes, there isn't enough story to fill it, and things start to drag very early on.

With a few more twists and turns, and perhaps a little more action than Cross and his floozy plotting nefarious deeds within earshot of a semi-concious Janet, "Shock" could have been a fun little suspense movie. Instead, all we have here is a B-movie where the B stands for "boring."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

'The Great Flamarion' is a tale of lust and tragedy

The Great Flamarion (1946)
Starring: Erich von Stroheim, Mary Beth Hughes, Dan Duryea and Stephen Barclay
Director; Anthony Mann
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Reclusive marksman and vaudeville entertainer (von Stroheim) comes out of his shell when he believes the beautiful assistant in his act (Hughes) loves him and wants to be with him instead of her husband (Duryea). However, the coldhearted, manipulative woman simply wants the Great Flamarion to "accidentally" shoot her husband during the act, so she can run off with yet another man.

"The Great Flamarion" is an utterly predictable film, although it might not have been so in 1946 when it was made. The story never misses a chance to go exactly where you'd expect it to go, and the characters never move beyond complete and total cliches.

However, there is still a degree of enjoyment to be derived from this film if you just sit back and go with it. Hughes' performance as the black widow who should make black widows feel uneasy is so over-the-top that it fits perfectly with the nature of the script, while Von Stroheim takes an interesting term as a man who moves from an obsession with lethal guns to a lethal obsession with the woman who took his self-respect and his honor.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Agnes Quill sees dead people

Agnes Quill: An Anthology Of Mystery
(Slave Labor Graphics, 2006)

Writer: Dave Roman
Artists: Jeff Zoronow, Dave Roman, Jason Ho, and Riana Telgemeier
Steve's Rating Eight of Ten Stars

The title character of "Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery" is the 16-year-old granddaughter of a renowned detective and spiritualist, who exists ina pseudo-Victorian world where magic is acknowledged as real an commonplace enough that Agnes makes a living partly from running a "curiosity shop" that deals in arcane items and trinkets, and by carrying on the legacy of her grandfather. Her detective business is of a very unusual sort, going beyond solving simple arcane mysteries, as Agnes possesses the rarest of supernatural gifts: She has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts and other restless spirits, so she often helps them complete unfinished business so they can move onto the Afterlife. Her gift earns her a living, but it also leads her life to be lonely... and she is gaining insight into the darkness that exists in the souls of even the kindest-appearing men and women at a very early age.

Published by Slave Labor Graphics, "Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery" contains six tales of the teenaged supernatural sleuth, chronicle such diverse cases as her helping a kindly (but deceased) old lady wrap up her worldly affairs, protecting an unsavory womanizer from being torn limb-from-limb by the reanimated corpses of dead lovers, fighting a steampunkish mad scientist who is snatching body parts not from cadavers but from living people, and even finds possible romance in a secret under city).

Rounding out the book are excerpts from Agnes' personal journal and from files compiled by a shadowy organization that's keeping an eye on her and her activities. These materials add depth to the characters and stories, and whetted my appetite for even more Agnes Quill adventures.

What I liked the most about the stories here was the low quantity of angst, high quantity of adventure, the slight touch of melancholy, and the vast potential that still remains in the characters and the world they exist in. The kind of stories that can be told here have been attempted in comics before, but writer and creator Dave Roman seems to have come up with a world and back story that's got more breadth and depth than previous similar efforts.

"Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery" should appeal to fans of books like the "Harry Potter" and "Dresden Files" series, to those who simply appreciate well-done comics. (Another sign of the sturdiness of the Agnes Quill series is the range of art styles that are represented, from Telgemeier's very cartoony style to Jeff Zornow's intensely dramatic artwork. Each vision is equally appropriate.)

I recommend this book very highly. It's $11 for a book that I believe every comics fan in the house will enjoy; . (Well, except maybe those who need to have characters in tights with impossibly big boobs on every page. But those who appreciate well-told tales with interesting characters and offbeat adventures will get a kick out of the tales here, be they boys, girls, or adults.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

'Attack of the Giant Leeches' is boredom

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
Starring: Ken Clark, Jan Shepard, Yvette Vickers, Bruno VeSota and Gene Roth
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A small town located on the edge of a swamp and inhabited primarily by unpleasant hicks is menaced by giant leeches. Will the studly game warden (Clark)--one of three citizens with a double-digit IQ--save the day?

"Attack of the Giant Leeches" is one of those movies where the various characters can't get eaten by the monsters soon enough. This is partly because they're portrayed by second-rate actors delivering badly written dialogue, but also because the film is just plain boring.

The movie reaches its high point when the local shopkeeper (Bruno VeSota) chases his wife (the town slut, played by Yvette Vickers) into the swamp after catching her with one of her lovers. There's some genuine tension and suspense in that scene, and it's the only bit that materializes in the entire movie.

(Later scenes might have had some suspense to them, but it's ruined by the fact the "giant leeches" are obviously plastic and their suckers look more like eyes than suckers. They effect is not one of horror but one of goofiness.)

There is one important lesson to be taken from this film: If you think you are hearing an angry leopard or wildcat while wandering through a swamp, it's probably just the mating cry of a giant leech.

I suppose, in fairness, I should acknowledge the fact that the movie lets us oogle a sexy chick getting dressed as her slobby husband oogles her getting dressed. I guess that's a little bit of entertainment value right there.

(Although it did make me wonder: Do most women really put their shoes on before they've even finished putting on the rest of their clothes? It seems like they always do it that way in the movies....)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

'Zombies of Mora Tau' fails to live up
to its potential

Zombies of Mora Tau (aka "The Dead That Walk") (1957)
Starring: Gregg Palmer, Autumn Russell, Allison Hayes, Joel Ashley, Marjorie Eaton, Morris Ankrum and Gene Roth
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of callous treasure hunters and the residents of an isolated African farm are beset by swimming zombies protecting a treasure trove of cursed diamonds.

While watching "Zombies of Mora Tau" my mind repeatedly wandered to the work of another director who was turning out cheap horror movies in the 1950: Edward D. Wood. This is film is not that much better than "Bride of the Monster", making it one of many bits of evidence that whoever first decided it was cute to slander Wood with the "worst filmmaker ever" label was an ignorant twat.

"Zombies of Mora Tau" is a film with a weak script being performed by a cast who are actors in the sense they can hit their marks and deliver their lines but who otherwise seem fairly free of any actual talent for acting. It further suffers from the fact that the costume designers or make-up artists didn't have the creativity to make the zombies look even halfway interesting--even "White Zombie", which is borrowed from/paid homage to on a couple of occasions here, did a far better job at this, way back at the dawn of the zombie movie genre--and it didn't have the budget to actually make the cool idea of underwater zombie attacks look believable.

This is one of those movies that is brimming with potential, but it remains nearly entirely unrealized because of the incompetence of the filmmakers and the paltry budget they had to work with.

Almost despite itself, the film manages to mount a number of creepy moments, such as when the slutty femme-fatale wife of the captain of the salvage ship (played by Allison Hayes) rises from the dead as a zombie and then sets about to kill her former colleagues, including her husband. However, even the creepiest moment in the film is marred by cheapness and bad acting.

As bad as I think this movie is, I did keep watching it and not because I was wondering if it could get any worse. No, in this instance, I kept hoping it would get better, because I kept thinking, "Wow... this could be a really scary scene if there was some more blood here" or "Good actors could have made this actually seem as intense as it's supposed to be" and so on.

I'm sure anyone who likes zombie movies will have a similar reaction when viewing this film. It is so full of what-could-have-been material that it will feed the imagination of any but the most braindead horror fan. This quality, coupled with the laughably bad execution of just about everything present on screen, makes it a great movie to consider for inclusion in a Bad Movie Night.

It's a shame that the film industry only seems interested in remaking movies that were already good to begin with. If there's a movie that deserves to be remade, it's "Zombies of Mora Tau". You wouldn't even need a new script. With a few minor tweaks and a modern approach to executing the story, the existing script would be the perfect foundation for a kick-ass film. (It would need a enough of a budget for decent diving and underwater scenes, though. Just imagine: "Into the Blue" with zombies! How cool would THAT be?!)

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Milla Jovovich

Ukranian-born American actress Milla Jovovich has a varied resume of films to her name, continuing to appear in a mix of big-budget fantasy/horror tinged films and small artsy-type thrillers.