Monday, May 31, 2010

Maybe this is why your mom told you,
'Never talk to strangers'?

Strangers on a Train (1951)
Starring: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Laura Elliot (aka Casey Rogers) and Patricia Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A professional tennis player (Granger) has what he believes is an idle conversation with a very strange fan (Walker) while traveling by train. The fan proposes that he kill the athlete's slutty, unfaithful wife (Elliot), who is denying him a divorce, white the tennis player kills his domineering father. It's the perfect murder, as neither of them have a motive to kill their victim and no one knows they know each other. Although the athlete refuses to take part in the scheme, his wife turns up murdered, and the man from the train appears on his doorstep and demands that he follow through with his part of the arrangement.

"Strangers on a Train" is one of Hitchcock's finest movies. The performances from all the actors are top-notch, with Farley Granger playing his part so effectively that even when it's obvious that he repulsed at the idea of committing murder when it his proposed to him--escially the murder of someone he doesn't even know--there is still just intrigued enough that he might give into the temptation to be rid of his nasty wife.

Co-star Robert Walker is equally excellent as the psychopath who is intent on forcing Granger to be his partner in murder. From his first appearance, the audience can tell that there's something queer about Walker's character--and I'm using that word in any sense you choose to apply it--even if he he initially seems nice enough, if just a bit socially awkward. As the film unfolds, and we become fully aware of just how deranged and evil this man is, Walker becomes the main source of tension in the film... a threat greater to Granger and those he cares about than even the possibility of being arrested for a murder he didn't commit.

Aside from the great acting "Strangers on a Train" is also a showcase for perfection in film editing; if it's not being used in film studies classes, it should be. There is not a wasted second anywhere in its running-time, and the third act is nail-biter it thanks primarily to the editing. The sequence where Granger has to finish and WIN a tennis competition in record time so he can stop Walker from planting incriminating evidence framing Granger once and for all at the murder scene is absolutely spectacular. The same is true of the way we follow Walker on his trip back to the scene of the crime with the damning evidence in hand. Finally, there is the rightfully celebrated climactic and deadly confrontation between Granger and Walker on a out-of-control carousel, a symbolic fight pushed to the height of suspense by artful use of cinematic tricks.

If you have watched and liked any Hitchcock films, I believe you absolutely must see this movie. That goes double if you are an aspiring writer or filmmaker yourself. Few movies are a better one-stop showcase for how to do this right than "Strangers on a Train."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

'Cash on Demand' is an excellent thriller

Cash on Demand (1961)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, and Richard Vernon
Director: Quentin Lawrence
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A bank manager (Cushing) is forced to assist in plundering his own bank when a robber (Morell) holds is wife and child hostage.

This is an undeservedly obscure thriller with stars Peter Cushing and Andre Morell showing that you don't need hundreds of millions of dollars, gunplay and lots of violence to make an exciting movie. Most of this film takes place within a single room--the bank manager's office--and most of it is Cushing and Morrel talking. This is a movie that shows that a great film can arise from a solid script, good actors, and competent direction and editing. (This film cost about $60,000, adjusted for inflation; not single shot is fire; and the worst violence is when Andre Morrel slaps Cushing a couple of times.)

The film is a remarkable entry into the psychological thriller genre, one of roughly a dozen of this type of film co-produced with Columbia Pictures during the early 1960s in the hopes of capturing the success Universal Pictures and Alfred Hitchcock had with "Psycho." This wasn't new territory for Hammer, however, as they had released numerous crime dramas and thrillers during the 1940s and 1950s, before the studio hit cinema gold with their celebrated Technicolor gothic horror flicks.

But the black-and-white thrillers the studio produced during the early 1960s were better than those earlier efforts, and "Cash on Demand" is one of the best.

The film's strength comes to a large degree from Peter Cushing and his portrayal of Fordyce, a man who treats the bank he manages as his kingdom, his staff as serfs, and his office as his throne room. He is an unliked and unlikable in his professional life, but Cushing presents Fordyce's soft side with a single glance at the picture of his wife and son that he keeps on his desk... and that one glance is all the audience needs to be on Fordyce's side once Andre Morell's villanious and manipulative Hepburn enters the bank and turns Fordyce's throne room into his prison and forces him to destroy his kingdom in order to save his the ones he loves.

We feel for Fordyce as he is reduced from a proud and unyielding to sniveling and begging. But we also watch to see how far Hepburn can push Fordyce, if Fordyce will break, and what the result will be if he does.

But Cushing's performance wouldn't be as strong if he didn't have Andre Morell to play off. Morell presents Hepburn as a charming, cheerful person and he delivers every line with a smile in his voice... but in a couple of instances, he reveals his character's true nature and it becomes apparent that he is a mirror image of Fordyce: Fordyce is a soft man within a cold, hard shell, but Hepburn is a hard man with an even harder core hidden behind a soft and smiling exterior. Hepburn has seen through Fordyce's exterior and he takes a great deal of pleasure at breaking it down while lecturing him on proper interaction with his fellow man. The humanistic approach that Hepburn takes to life--and it is one that seems to be genuine, not just part of his picking at Fordyce as he waits for the right moment to clean out the bank vault--makes him a fascinating and interesting character.

One of the biggest surprises is the film's ending. It is a far more modern one that I anticipated, and it's a great close for a great film. Another appealing aspect is that the film, which takes place just before Christmas, ultimately ends up like a sideways take on "A Christmas Carol," with Fordyce standing in for Scrooge and Hepburn being all the Christmas Ghosts in one smiling--yet very menacing--package.

"Cash on Demand" is one of the six movies featured in "Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films." It's worth the price of the almost all by itself.

For more reviews of movies starring Peter Cushing, visit The Peter Cushing Collection by clicking here.

Picture Perfect Wednesday
with Katharine Hepburn

Here's hoping you're having a better day than Ms. Hepburn.

Monday, May 24, 2010

One of Corman's first is also one of his best

A Bucket of Blood (1959)
Starring: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Antony Carbone, and Julian Burton
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Walter (Miller), the dorky, put-upon busboy at the beatnik hangout Yellow Door Cafe, wants desperately to be an artist--both so he can impress his beautiful coworker Carla (Morris) and receive the sort of adulations that are heaped nightly upon poet Maxwell Brock (Burton). After he accidentially kills his neighbor's cat, he hits upon the perfect medium for his creative expression--covering dead bodies with clay and presenting them as sculptures. Soon, people are dying to be his models.

For years, I maligned Roger Corman as a terrible filmmaker. This was partly due to the fact that that the first few movies of his that I saw were indeed awful, such as "The Gunslinger." However, as I've been seeing more of his films, I've realized I misjudged him. He could make good movies, and "A Bucket of Blood" is one of this best!

"A Bucket of Blood" is a dark comedy where a talentless loner, desperate for acceptance, goes to extremes to fit in. Its events and messages can be interperted in many ways--as commentary on what passes for "art"; as a statement about the downsides of societal pressures to fit in, even among supposedly accepting counter-cultures; that the one constant in life is hypocracy; or perhaps even all of these--or the viewer can just switch off the brain and watch Walter's quest for acknowledgement spin out of control.

The general structure, story, and even the types of characters, of "A Bucket of Blood" is similar to Corman's later "The Little Shop of Horrors", but the story is more tightly focused, the humor sharper, and the actors' performances more restrained. Where "The Little Shop of Horrors" was a broadbased spoof, "A Bucket of Blood" keeps its attention on beatniks, artists, and wannabes. The main characters are virtually identical, and they even come to similar final fates, but Walter emerges as a far more sinister and evil character than Seymour, and the climactic moment in "Bucket" is more impactful (where it was just goofy in "Shop".

The camerawork and lighting of this film are near perfect. Yes, this is a low-buget film, and the sets are simple and shabby, but Corman uses a wide range of filmmaking techniques that heighten the drama and horror toward the end of the film, and they greatly enhance the pitch-black comedy when Walter's boss (Carbone) is reacting in the background while Walter is showing his latest creation to him and Carla, after the boss has realized how the sculptures are being created. In fact, during the chase scene toward the end of the film, I found myself wondering if many modern filmmakers should be forced to watch this movie to see how to properly apply the tools of their trade.

The actors are also universally excellent, with great comedic talent shown all-around, from the pair of doped-out beatniks who wander through the scenes spouting hilarious nonsense; to Carbone, as the demanding boss who finds respect and fear for his busboy; to Morris, Walter's kindhearted coworker and target of his affections; to Burton, as the blowhard, psuedo-intellectual poet; to Miller, who, in his only starring role, puts on a spectacular show as a dork who turns into a homicidal maniac because of a hunger for acceptance. Miller does a fine job of going from goofy to menacing, but still maintaining a comic tone.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Anti-aging serum creates murderer
in 'Before I Hang'

Before I Hang (1940)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Evelyn Keyes, Edward Van Sloan, Bruce Bennett, and Don Beddoe
Director: Nick Grinde
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

John Garth (Karloff), a research scientist who devoted his career to cure the disease of aging, developes a successful anti-aging serum that has one teeny-tiny side-effect: It turns him into a mad killer whenever he sees blood.

This is a decent little horror flick with sci-fi overtones and elements that resonate even louder today than they did when it was released in 1940. With its themes of mercy-killings of suffering old people, the death penelty, stem cell research, and anti-aging drugs (I can see Dr. Garth working in one of those "anti-aging clinics" we have a small chain of here in the Northwest), the fillm has something to say on a number of topics that remain the subject of heated discussion in the halls of both scientific and political power.

With good acting--Boris Karloff once again does a great job at transforming one character he is playing into another one, with just his facial expression and body language to help him--and the supporting cast are all excellent in their parts.

This is an interesting flick that might well be a real classic, due to its timeless subject matter. It's one of four Karloff films included in "Icons of Horror: Boris Karloff."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bulldog Drummond is out for revenge
(not sure against whom, but look out)!

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)
Starring: John Howard, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, and Frank Puglia
Director: Louis King
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

While preparing to travel to Switzerland with his friends Algy (Denny) and Colonel Nielsen (Barrymore), as well as his manservant Tenny (Clive), so he can finally marry the love of his life, Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), Captain Hugh Drummond (Howard) is drawn into a nefarious scheme by murderous froeign agents attempting to steal the only existing sample of a newly developed high explosive, Hexonite. Can Drummond and his friends round up the guilty parties without spoiling yet another set of wedding plans?

"Bulldog Drummond's Revenge" is a fast-paced adventure tale that keeps things funny and lighthearted--almost in spite a sequence where our heroes are tossing about a suitcase that don't realize contains unstable explosives, and a series of ghoulish gags involving a severed arm.

This is the third of eight "Bulldog Drummond" movies produced by Paramount Pictures in the 1930s, and the regular cast-members provide their usual charming and witty performances. Clive shines particularly brightly in this outing, with Tenny's plain frustration with the antics of his "betters" giving rise to some very funny sarcasm.

The film's main weak point is its reliance on far-fetched coincidences to both get started and keep the characters involved in the events. (I could accept that Drummond and pals just happen to be driving along the road where bad guys are executing Stage Two of their scheme... but it taxes my ability to suspend my disbelief that Drummond and Phyllis's train compartment just happens to be next to the ones reserved by the bad guy. There's also the issue that Phyllis seems just a tiny bit too shrewish at times during the film; it's hardly Hugh's fault that a suitcase and a severed arm literally dropped out of the sky as he was returning from London.

This entry in the series will be particularly appreciated by fans of the "Indiana Jones" movies, as it has much of a same tone as they do.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's 'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day'!

Here's a Motoon from Boogie Woogie of Kapuskasing, Canada (and maybe even Company B).

Let's make sure this vision of Mo'--one that undoubtedly stirs the loins of RevolutionMuslims and Al-Queerda members everywhere--will never become a reality.

'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day' 'toons!

Here are Tom's contributions to the Day of a Million Moes.

If you want your drawings of Mohammed hosted by someone other than yourself, feel free to send them. I'll be checking email throughout the afternoon.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Sketches

I've posted my primary contribution to the world-wide, web-based demonstration against Islamic psychos threatening cartoonists, filmmakers, writers, and other artists whenever they feel offended at Cinema Steve, because there is a little color in the finished piece so it doesn't fit here. Click here to check it out.

However, the sketches I made while creating the illo do. So, here's me getting double-milage out of the same acts of "blasphemy" by drawing the Prophet Mohammed(may peas upon him, may pleats be upon him, and may Pez be upon him).

May the smiling face of the Prophet Mohammed (may peat be upon him) be everywhere you look today. Click here to view hundreds of cartoons drawn in defense of freedom of expression and in celebration of Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day:
The Best of the Bravest

For the past three weeks, Aaron Worthing has been posting drawings from around the world at his Everyone Draw Mohammed blog. I think he's done more for this day in defense of freedom of expression than anyone else I've come across.

I'm reposting a few of my favorites done by those who believe so firmly in this protest against violent Muslim extremism that they clearly identified themselves when they submitted their art for Aaron to post. Click on the drawings to see larger versions and visit the "Everyone Draw Mohammed" site for full credits on the drawings.

For my contribution to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, click here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Preview

Tomorrow is the long-awaited Everybody Draw Mohammed Day! It's too bad that cartoonist Molly Norris (who is NOT taking part in the festivities... she made a joke but others made it reality) didn't pick May 19 as the date, because what could make a more Picture Perfect Wednesday than thousands of bloggers posting pictures of the Prophet Mohammed (peas be upon him) within the same 24-hour period?

Anyhow, I forgive you, Ms. Norris. I'm sure the Islamic Thought Police forgive you, too. At any rate, the fact Everybody Draw Muhammed Day is torrow, gives me one more opportunity to plug the event by posting one of my favorite early Mohammed cartoons that showed up here. (Once again, the link takes you to Aaron Worthing's "Everyone Draw Mohammed" blog.)

This illo is one of the hundreds already posted there. It's by Kevin Johnson and it was captioned "Early censorship of Muhammed's image".

I hope you'll come back tomorrow to take a look at my contribution to the Day of a Million Moes. I hope even more strongly that you'll be participating with a drawing of your own.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

'Essential Spider-Woman' features
top-notch horror-tinged superhero tales

Essential Spider-Woman Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics, 2005)

Writers: Marv Wolfman, Mark Gruenwald, Michael Fleisher, and Archie Goodwin
Artists: Carmine infantino, Al Gordon, Tony DeZuniga, Ron Wilson, Frank Springer, Trevor von Eedon, Mike Esposito, Steve Leialoha,
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Jessica Drew is Spider-Woman, a young woman with super-strength, the ability to climb and cling to the smoothest walls and ceilings, and the ability to shoot venom-blasts of varying lethality. She comes from a background that even she herself doesn't fully understand, and after being manipulated into serving as an agent of the international fascist movement Hydra, she ventures into the world to find a place for herself.

"Essential Spider-Woman" is a massive collection of Marvel Comics from the late 70s. It features some of the niftiest supernatural- and horror-tinged superhero comics ever put into print, created by some of the best writers and artists who were active in the 70s and 80s. With allies like Mordred and Magnus (immortal, one-time students of sorceress Morgan LeFay), Jack Russell (Werewolf by Night), the Shroud (mystery-man with the ability to summon darkness with a thought), and several agents of SHIELD, Jessica Drew's friends are as odd as her enemies--Morgan LeFey, the Needle, the Brothers Grimm, the Moth, Nekra, and various demons and spirits and monstrous servants of Hydra.

The tales reprinted from "Spider-Woman" 1-20, penned by Wolfman and Gruenwald, are particularly excellent, as Jessica Drew struggles to find a place in the world and come to terms with the blessings and curses that her past has left her with. The threads of strangeness and Jessica's loneliness make these stories really stand out among the comics of that period, and the fantastic art by Infantino (with perfectly complimentary inks by DeZuniga and Gordon, primarily) really makes the stories shine.

Not everything in the book is perfect. The story-arc where Spider-Woman clashes with the Hangman and eventually meets Jack Russell and battles Morgan LeFey is such a mess plotwise that it feels like the writer must have been replaced mid-stream, yet the credits list only Wolfman. Neither the Hangman nor Jack Russell really serve any purpose in the story, and the Hangman just drops out of it without any resolution.

Also, when Fleisher comes onboard as the writer at the very end of the collection, pretty much all the supernatural and horror elements of the series vanish, and Spider-Woman becomes a typical costumed superhero, existing somewhere between Batman and Catwoman. It's a surprising change, given the DC work of Fleisher--foremost among that being the Jonah Hex series and "Wrath of the Spectre" for Adventure Comics--that Spider-Woman should take such a turn towards the mundane when guided by his pen. The first Fleisher stories also represent the lowpoint of the book artwise, with the Springer pencils and Esposito inks giving them a look more suitable for a 1960s era romance comic than a superhero thriller like "Spider-Woman." But the art quality shoots back up with the final, Leialoha illustrated, tale in the book.

I loved the Jessica Drew character, from her appearances in Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Two-in-One, and through all the other stories in this book and well beyond them. Although I had stopped following the character, I was sad to hear when Marvel ruined her by removing her powers because her title got cancelled.

When I saw "Essential Spider-Woman," I snatched it up, and the good stories are every bit as good as I thought they were as a kid (unlike "Essential Ghostrider," where the reprinted content was no where near as good as I remembered it). The bad ones...well, either my tastes have grown more refined, or I those faded completely from memory. I recommend this volume to lovers of quirky superhero titles, and I encourage those of you who might find Infantino's unusual art style a bit offputting to let him grow on you. He's one of my all-time favorite artists, but I know that for some he can be an acquired taste.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Abbott and Costello vs Bedouins and
Cheese-eatin' Surrender Monkeys!

Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Patricia Medina, Walter Slezak, Douglas Dumbrille and Wee Willie Davis
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

While in North Africa on business, a couple of American wrestling promoters (Abbott and Costello) become drawn into local intrigues by a beautiful French intelligence agent (Medina) and agents of a villainous Arab Bedouin sheik (Dumbrille) and are tricked into joining the French Foreign Legion.

"Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion" is one of the funniest, fastest-paced films the duo made. The film barrels from comedy setpiece to comedy set piece and and nonsense verbal routine to nonsense verbal routine with barely an establishing shot to separate them.

As funny as the film is, it's not perfect. A couple of the extended comedy routines don't quite work--like the chase scene involving a jeep and Arab bad guys on horseback--and the ending feels a little rushed and badly constructed. However, the good far outweighs the bad here, and it's definitely worth checking out if you've enjoyed other Abbott and Costello films, or if you're just a lover of wild crazy comedies.

Or if you're a lover of films that probably couldn't even be made today. This film features villainous Arabs who are sexist, violent and duplicitous in all things--oh noes! Never mind that the real world contains plenty of real people who are far worse than the character portrayed by Douglass Dumbrille in this film.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Preview

Here's my first contribution to the run-up to the "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" on May 20th (a day that will be remembered as the Day of a Million Mo's!). It started as a sketch for the more elaborate cartoon I am working on, but then an idea struck and the sketch became the first drawing I've "published" in over 15 years.

Heck, I almost remember what I loved about cartooning and drawing back when I did it on a regular basis!

I'll be posting my full-fledged Mohammed cartoon on May 20th. I hope you'll swing by to check it out. Meanwhile, you can shudder in horror at Cartoons of Blasphemy here and here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Great screen version of great novel

Lord of the Flies (1963)
Starring: James Aubrey, Tom Chapin and Hugh Edwards
Director: Peter Brook
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A group of schoolboys are stranded on a deserted island and must fend for themselves. Despite their initial best efforts, they soon descend into murderous savagery.

"Lord of the Flies" is perhaps one the very most effective movie adaptations of a novel I've ever seen. I read the book, and I found it to be a gripping, chilling read... and the movie captured the book exactly!

Not only do all the child actors give great performances, but even the filming style and subtle changes in the way the island appears as the boys drift further and further from the civilized behavior they all know is proper and toward the murderous, pagan savagery that most of them have grown devoted to by the films end serves to drive home the developments in the film. On both a concious and subconcious level, the viewer is drawn into the increasingly brutal and horrifying world of the desert island.

With as many interperations and subtleties of message as William Golding's book--even if the overall thrust is a downer for those who believe in the inate goodness of humanity--"Lord of the Flies" is a true classics that's every bit as engrossing for intelligent viewers as it was when it was first released nearly 50 years ago. It's a true classic that doesn't get nearly enough recognition.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

'Dead Men Walk' is so-so chiller

Dead Men Walk (1943)
Starring: George Zucco, Mary Carlisle, and Nedrick Young
Director: Sam Newfield
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Elwyn Clayton (Zucco) is a devoted Satanist who is murdered by his twin brother Lloyd (also Zucco), who wants to rid the world of this evil wearing his face. Although Lloyd successfully covers up the murder, he soon finds himself stalked by his dead brother who has been resurrected by the Dark Powers as a vampire. Worse, Elwyn intends to drain the life from Lloyd's beautiful ward, Gayle (Carlisle) before visiting his undead revenge upon his brother.

"Dead Men Walk" is a just about as typical a vampire movie as you'll ever see. Everything in it is pretty much as you would expect. So long as you're not hoping for anything original, it's a fairly entertaining B-movie.

The best part of the film is the climax where Lloyd battles Elwyn and his hunchbacked minion as a house burns down around them. Again, it's not anything you haven't seen before, but it's nicely staged.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

'The Screaming Skull' is a failed thriller

The Screaming Skull (1958)
Starring: John Hudson and Peggy Webber
Director: Alex Nicol
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

"The Screaming Skull" is at its best before the movie actually starts. There is a gimmicky bit where the producers promise to pay the funeral costs for anyone who dies of fright during the movie's climax. It's far more likely that a captive audience member will die of boredom or irritation before the movie runs its course, so the producers will never have to deliver on their promis, as that little bit is more chilling in a corny sort of way than most of what follows.

This is a would-be thriller with the now well-worn backdrop of a widower marrying a one-time institutionalized (but very rich) woman, moving back to the isolated old mansion he shared with his first love, and the fragile psyche of the new wife either starts unraveling, or perhaps she is really being haunted by the jealous ghost of the original lady of the house... or maybe someone is trying to drive her insane again.

I can't fault the film for its I've-seen-this-a-hundred-times-before plot, because it dates from 1958, but I do fault it for being just plain bad. The script is awful, and the acting is worse. There are only two things the filmmakers do right--first, they reveal the source of Jenni's (the mentally frazzled rich wife) terror at just the right moment in the film; second, they successfully manage to convey the woman's deteriorating sanity and growing sense of isolation).he acting is worse. In fact, the only actor who delives even close to a passable performance is Russ Conway, who plays Reverend Snow.

I will also grant that the final ten-fifteen minutes of the film are actually not bad in a third-rate horror movie kinda way. But the ending isn't so good that it makes up for suffering through what led up to it. (And the filmmakers back off from making the ending as powerful as it SHOULD be by wimping out when it comes to Jenni's mental health, or lack thereof.)

Other positive notes are that aside from portions of the ending, there are a few other genuinely creepy moments, such as when Jenni is left alone in the house (which is suddenly filled with animated skulls). There are also some very nice shots of her roaming the house, and of the mysterious, shadowhaunted, vegetation-choked grounds that surround the southern mansion where the movie takes place that show some glimmer of talent on the part of the cinematographer and technical crew. Unfortunately, every time the actors open their mouths to deliver badly written dialogue with a level of acting ability that might not even get them into a high school play, whatever gains the movie made it loses. The leading lady, Peggy Webber, is a great screamer, but that's all she's good for (although I suspect the scene of her stripping down to her bra and panties was pretty racey in its day, so maybe we can list stripping among her talents).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

'Terror in the Tropics' isn't what I wished

Terror in the Tropics (2005)
Starring: Mark Redfield, Jennifer Rouse, Jonathan Ruckman, Wayne Shipley, Kimberly Hannold, and Bela Lugosi
Director: A. Susan Svehla
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of strangers are summoned to the reading of a will that names them as beneficiaries of a multi-million dollar estate. The trip is dangerous to all, not just because of the murderer and thief hiding in their midst, but because the insane Tesla Brothers (Redfield and Lugosi) await at their destination with murderous intent.

I really, really wanted to like this movie. The idea sounded excellent--taking scenes from Poverty Row movies of the 1930s and 1940s and incorporating them into a new movie by shooting scenes with modern actors. I still think it's an excellent idea... I just think Svehla and the fine folks at Midnight Marquee failed to execute it properly.

The biggest problem with the film is the story, or, more accurately, the stories.

There are two distinct stories here, and they are completely unrelated... we have a thief who stole the real map to Skull Island (King Kong's home) and who launched a failed expedition to it, and then we have the will-reading storyline. Both also feature unnecessarily subplots and characters... the Skull Island story treats us to a unnecessary (and, in context, utterly illogical) flashback to the failed expedition, and the will-reading story sees the shoehorning of a the archetypal fiery girl-reporter and sexist photographer into the going-ons. If the filmmakers had focused EITHER on the Skull Island/detective storyline OR the will-reading/evil Tesla Brothers storyline, the end product would have been far better.

(The filmmakers seemed to have recognized this problem as some point, and they write out a trio of characters in a lame fashion at about the 3/4 mark.)

Another problem is with the actors. For the most part, they aren't bad. They are about what I'd expect in a production like this... if it hadn't been billed as a tribute to the low-budget films of the 30s and 40s.

There's no sign that ANY of the actors here bothered taking the time to examine how actors of that time performed the characters they were playing. I saw no sign that any of the performers were making any attempt to bring the sort of energy to their parts that just about EVERYONE displayed in the films back then... and that includes the two actors who came closest to feeling like they belonged in a Monogram Picture--Jonathan Ruckman (who was playing the typical dishwater love interest) and Mark Redfield.

Then there's the new footage. The incompatibility of the acting styles aside, a number of bad decisions were made when the new footage was filmed. Prime among these was the string of cheap plastic party flags featured prominently on the ship-board set. On the flip-side, however, the first scene with the city editor was very impressive in its use of green-screens. (Later, when a ballroom scene uses similar tricking-in of backgrounds, it's badly done... but old-time office that wasn't actually there looked GREAT.)

Finally, there's the film's main selling point... the re-use of Lugosi, Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. footage in new and fun ways. Observant readers may already have noticed that when I listed the stars of the film, I didn't mention Karloff and Chaney, even though they're listed on the DVD case. Well, that's because Karloff is featured in some "Mr. Wong" footage that's incorporated in a very awkward and gratuitous fashion--and the Chaney is featured only in some bits taken from "The Indestructible Man" and it's almost as pointless as the Karloff bits.

Lugosi is used very cleverly in the picture, and his "new" character of Vitus Tesla is incorporated quite nicely. The footage from "The Devil Bat" and "The Invisible Ghost" is put to good and fun use. It's a glimpse into what the entire film could have been like if perhaps the filmmakers had chosen to focus a bit more on story rather than trying to cram as many different B-movie elements as possible into one film with a running-time of just above one hour.

I also contend that the film has too much new footage and not enough old. There's also too many instances of the same bit being used more than once, given how little old material is actually incorporated. More thought and time should have been devoted to using and incorporating the archive footage.

For all my complaining, I do want to mention that the filmmakers did blend old and new footage in a very impressive way during the film's climax as the hero attempts to get his hapless new girlfriend (Hannold) safely away from the Tesla Brothers. If the rest of the film had been this good, you'd be seeing a Fresh Rating instead of the measly Three Tomatoes I've giving it now.

I can't really recommend the film "Terror in the Tropics", and the rating I'm giving it probably on the generous side... a reflection of what I hoped it would be rather than what it is. There is a mostly botched attempt at creating movie in the spirit of the old Monogram and PRC films, but I can't help but appreciate the attempt.

However, while I can't recommend the DVD for the "Terror in the Tropics" film, I can recommend it for the extras. There's a very interesting lecture by an expert on the Poverty Row studios about why great actors like George Zucco, John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi did so much work for them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Happy Cinco de Mayo (or sumthin')

Mexican Hayride (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Luba Malina, Tim Powers, Pat Costello, Virginia Grey and John Hubbard
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

After being framed for a swindle by a greasy conman (Abbott), Joe Bascombe (Costello) follows the scoundrel to Mexico to clear his name. Unfortunately, Joe is tricked into being the fall guy for another scheme.

"Mexican Hayride" is the first truly bad Abbott & Costello picture I've seen. Not only is the storyline illogical (even by Abbott & Costello standards), but the best gags in here will evoke mild chuckles at best. Even if it was included in a DVD multipack titled "The Best of Abbott & Costello Vol. 3", this is one of their worst.

Biggest sign this is a bad movie? The bullfighting sequence is the funniest part in here. Yes, something as repulsive as bullfighting serves as the foundation for the best jokes and routines in the film.

One very strange thing about this film is that it was based on a successful musical from the early 1940s. However, there is only one song in the film and it isn't even by Cole Porter, who wrote the music for the original stage production.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Liberation Day

Several European nations--including Holland and Denmark--recognize May 5, 1945, as the day they were liberated from occupying Nazi forces. It's also the day when the German U-boat forces formally surrendered and the people of the Czech capitol Prague revolted against the Nazis.

This captioned picture was borrowed from

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

This blog will be part of
'Everybody Draw Mohammed Day'
on May 20

On May 20, I'll be posting an original piece of art to this blog, a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed himself (may peas be upon him)!

I, along with what I hope will be hundreds (maybe even thousands!) of bloggers and artists, will take a stand that our governments and media-owners have generally not been willing to, to stand up and in our own small way show the freakish, bloodthirsty Muslim terrorists that we're sick of their attempts to quell freedom of expression.

(And I don't really care about the "moderate Muslim" or "good Muslim" and their taking of offense. They should be offended at the psychos who claim to be the "good Muslims" and who want to kill over books, cartoons, or even the presentation of factual information about Islamic culture, history and the Prophet Mohammed (may fleece be upon him)).

For some background on "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" as filtered through me, check out the following links. (In brief, the idea sprang from a cartoon drawn by an artist who had no idea what she was starting.)

From April 22: 'Prophet Muhammad' now a dirty word!

From April 27: May 20th is the first annual Everybody Draw Muhammed Day (well... not really)

From May 4: May 20th IS the first annual Everbody Draw Muhammed Day!

I hope anyone reading this will take part in Everyone Draw Mohammed Day and publish a cartoon of their own.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Evil by Gaslight

Gaslight (aka "Angel Street") (1940)
Starrng: Anton Wallbrook, Diana Wynyard, Frank Pettingell, and Cathleen Cordell
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Abusive husband Paul Mallen (Wallbrook) sets about driving his mentally frail (but wealthy) wife insane after she unknowingly discovers a dark secret he is harboring. Will retired police detective B.G. Rough (Pettingell) uncover enough evidence about Paul's intent and true identity before it is too late to save Mrs. Mallen (Wynyard)?

"Gaslight" is a fabulous thriller set in Victorian London. If the modern day equavilients could have scripts this taught, victims this helpless and undeserving of torment, villains so absolutely sininster and intelligently evil, and camerawork and lighting as elegant and creative as is on display here, I wouldn't constantly be lamenting that the thriller is a dead genre.

The two lead actors in this film give astonishing performances. Paul Mallen has got to be among the most dispicable, evil villains to ever appear on film, and Anton Wallbrook plays him with perfect coldness. Diana Wynyard as the pitiable object of his twisted scheming plays Bella Mallen with just enough confusion and gentleness to make the viewer feel sorry for her but never feel irritated because she is too much of a victim. Instead, Paul Mallen's evil simply becomes that much more evident.

According to the IMDB entry for "Gaslight", when MGM acquired the rights to the film and did a remake in 1944, they attemted to destroy all copies of this original film. Fortunately, they did not succeed, and this very stylish, well-done thriller survives to this day in very good condition. It's one of the many forgotten and obscure cinematic gems included in Mill Creek's 100-movie boxed set, Mystery Classics, and it's one of the reasons many a reasons that set will appeal to lovers of thrillers, crime dramas, and film noir.

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