Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

'The Devil's Daughter' is short, but feels long

The Devil's Daughter (1939)
Starring: Nina Mae McKinney, Ida James, Emmett Wallace, Hamtree Harrington, Jack Carter, and Willa Mae Lang
Director: Arthur Leonard
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Sylvia Walton (James) returns from the United States to Haiti after a long absence when she inherits her father's banana plantation. Her disinherited half-sister Isabelle (McKinney), who managed the plantation for several years, has vanished without a trace, and Sylvia is desperate to find her, to offer her a fair share of the inheritance. Meanwhile, two rival suitors vie (Carter and Wallace) vie for Sylvia's attention and mysterious voodoo drums are heard from the depths of the jungle... where a vengeful Isabelle plots to regain all of what she considers rightfully hers.

"The Devil's Daughter" barely runs barely 50 minutes, but it feels much longer than that. A melodrama with horror overtones--very faint overtones, as the film repeatedly makes the point that the voodoo rituals are just hoaxes to drive off Sylvia and her dippy manservant Percy (Harrington)--about a quarter of the running time is wasted on a lame subplot involving the unfunny comic relief character trying to protect his soul from voodoo spirits and later to save his boss and her sister from a crooked plantation foreman. The film is further doomed by the fact that it features some of the worst dialogue I've ever seen outside of fiction written by grade schoolers, and acting styles that were passe in films in early 1932. In fact, every thing about this movie almost everything about this movie is stilted and stagy, even during the one scene where a little cinematic energy finally creeps in.

This is a film that's primarily of historical interest. It's an example of the movies produced during the early part of the 20th century for the 700 or so movie theaters that catered to Black audiences during America's period of Segregation. It's interesting to note that the same sort of characters that get slagged as racist in movies from the same period made for general audiences can be found in this film as well, specifically the bug-eyed superstitious servant character that Mantan Moreland made his signature. In fact, the only difference between characters portrayed by Moreland and the character of Percy in this film is that Percy is fundamentally unsympathetic. (And I'm not sure he was intended to be viewed as such by the filmmakers; I suspect he was intended to be a lovable, if not very bright, rogue, but to my eyes he was an obnoxious jerk who first tried to take advantage of what he considered to be backwards islanders, only to have the tables turned on him. The cultural and political tensions between the "cultured" daughter and her servant and the "native" daughter and her supporters lends a little bit of interesting flavor to the film, but it's not enough to make up for its shortcomings and outmoded style.

Although this is a film that history has left behind in every conceivable way, the climactic voodoo sequence is a nice pay-off for sitting through it. The song performed is catchy, and a little bit of cinematic life finally finds its way into the proceedings. The scene also showcases the screen presence of Nina Mae McKinney, a talented and charismatic singer actress who was not fated for screen-stardom.

If you want to get a taste of the "race films" from the 1930s, this isn't a bad place to start. If you're looking for a look at classic voodoo-oriented horror films, you're better off with "White Zombie", "I Walked With a Zombie", or even "King of the Zombies".

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Josephine and the Amazing Edible Dreamskirt

Born in St. Louis, MO, in 1906, Josephine Baker started dancing professionally in her early teens. She fled Missouri for Europe by the time she was 17, frustrated by the rampant racism in her hometown.

She quickly became a favorite in Paris revue clubs, and in 1925 she first performed her famous "banana dance" and was catapulted to international fame.

In 1937, Baker renounced her American citizenship in favor of France, as she was deeply disgusted by the many racist government-sanctioned institutions and regulations that existed in American society at that time. Although she occasionally visited the States over the following decades, she made her home in France and Monaco.

Baker always refused to perform in clubs that practiced segregation, and in 1951 she filed racism charges against the famous Stork Club in New York City when she was refused service because she was black. She later was the only woman to give an address at Martin Luther King's famous March on Washington rally.

Baker passed way in 1975.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The finest adventures of Marvel's greatest blacksploitation hero

Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics, 2005)
Writers: Steve Englehart, Steve Englehart, Archie Goodwin, Len Wein,
Artists: George Tuska, Billy Graham, Vincent Colletta,
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

During the 1970s, Marvel was jumping on whatever pop culture trend or figure they felt was suitable for comic book adaptation. This period brought us the martial arts-craze inspired series like "Iron Fist" and "Master of Kung Fu,"; classic horror monster-inspired titles of "Monster of Frankenstein," "Tales of the Zombie," "Tomb of Dracula," "Werewolf by Night," and others; occultism-inspired titles like "Son of Satan"; genre-bending titles like "Ghost Rider", "Man-Thing", and "Spider-Woman" ; and the original "blacksploitation" comic book "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire."

Luke Cage wasn't Marvel's first "blacksploitation" hero--that honor goes to The Falcon, a pimp turned costumed Captain America sidekick--but he was the first to carry his own title. And what a title it was.

Conceived by Roy Thomas and initially written masterfully by the great Archie Goodwin, Luke Cage was serving time in Seagate Maximum Security Prison when he volunteered for a medical experiment that, thanks to the interference of a virulent and violently racist prison guard, went wrong and granted him increased strength and near-invulnerabilty. Escaping from prison in the chaos following the experiment gone wrong, Cage settled in Harlem where he decided to use his new-found powers to become a "hero for hire" out of a small office above a 42nd Street grindhouse theater.

The first 16 stories presented in "Essential Luke Cage, Power Man" originally appeared in issues titled "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire". Written by Archie Goodwin and Steve Englehart, and penciled and inked primarily by George Tuska and Billy Graham, these tales are truly a tour-de-force of inner-city flavored superhero comics with a blackspoitation vibe so strong you could almost hear Isaac Hayes singing and guitar riffs in the background.

The first 16 issues of the series also comprise one long story arc that, while it contained numerous smaller tales they were all joined together by a strong supporting cast and the ongoing threads of Luke trying to atone for his criminal past and protect his new life from the ever-present threat of someone discovering he's an escaped convict. The stories also deal with issues of bigotry and racism in between and during Cage's battles against a quirky mix of inventive villains. Finally, the way the cast of characters and story develop in those first issues feel far more literary in nature than most comics. A prime reason for this is the fact that when characters are killed off, it doesn't feel like it's being done for shock value or as some gimmick to boost sales or create cross-over fodder, but rather because it is a natural development of what has gone before. It really is some of the best writing in the history of American comics. Heck, even the art is great; I'm not a big fan of George Tuska and a like Billy Graham's work even less, but both artists did the best work of their careers on the early "Luke Cage" issues; only issues #18-#20 where Tuska was inked by Vince Colletta feature better art.

My love for these early Luke Cage stories is heightened further by the two-part story originally from issues #9 and #10 where Cage crosses paths with Doctor Doom. They are some of the best Doom stories ever published, and they are the reason I have such an affection for Doom as a villain. In fact, they are among the early readings I did that I credit with me wanting to be a writer. And the fact that someone as wealthy as Doom stiffs Cage for his meager pay just because he can, and that Cage pursues him halfway around the world to collect that meager pay is just a great story with some fun interplay between the two characters in the second half.

If "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire" had ended with issue #16, with Luke and his girlfriend Claire walking off into the sunrise of a brand new day, leaving behind them the shadows of the past and the shady characters that belonged in them, it would have stood as one of the great works of comicdom and would be spoken of with great lament. Unfortunately, comics being comics, the series continued on (under the title "Luke Cage, Power Man"). Although none of the tales that follow are bad--and art-wise some are even better than the early issues--the stories are never quite as engaging as they were in those first 16 issues. The final 1/5th of the book features a slow, but steady decline, with Cage facing the Circus of Crime and being stuck in a "The Night Stalker"-inspired tale making it obvious that the series' greatest moments are well behind it once page 500 of this collection is reached.

I've read a small handful of stories from the "Luke Cage & Iron Fist: Heroes for Hire" period, but I generally found them unimpressive in every way. Although the title lasted through the 1980s, ultimately being cancelled after some 120 issues, the best of those stories can be found in the "Essential Iron Fist" volume (which I will get around to reviewing in the space eventually).

Luke Cage has made sporadic appearances in Marvel's titles over the decades since losing his own book, with one of the most noteworthy being a stretch in "The Punisher" some 15 years ago by now, during which Frank Castle was turned into a black man via plastic surgery. More recently, Cage has shaved his head and grown a goatee to match the look of a modern blacksploitation character. I've not actually read any of the stories since the above-mentioned Punisher appearance, but I've heard nothing good about them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

'Spider Baby': Where the 1960s meet the 1940s

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)
Starring: Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn, Lon Chaney Jr., Joan Keller, Quinn Redeker, Carol Ohmart, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Sid Haig, and Mantan Moreland
Director: Jack Hill
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The last remaining servant of the Merrye family, Bruno (Chaney), has spent his life caring for the three demented children (Banner, Haig, and Washburn) who are heirs to its fortune, keeping their deep psychopathies hidden and controlled. But greedy distant relatives and their lawyer (Mitchel, Ohmart, Redeker, and Schanzer) arrive to take the mansion and the money, Bruno's tentative hold on them slips... with deadly results.

"Spider Baby" is an atmospheric little movie that moves easily from horror to comedy and that amply proves the point that filmmakers don't necessarily need budgets in the hundreds of thousands to make good movies, nor does a film need to be graphic to be sexy or scary. In fact, I don't recall a scene that was more scary and sexy than the "seduction" scene between the homicidal underage vixen and wanna-be human spider Virginia and one of the dipsticks that have come to take her house and caregiver away.

Although the film suffers from uneven pacing, and the would-be explosive ending falls short of what writer/director Hill hoped for due to budget limitations, it is carried by striking performances from its young female stars, Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn, who manage to in turn be funny, sexy and scary; and from Lon Chaney Jr, who in the fading twilight of his career managed to shake off the weight of alcoholism long enough to turn in a performance that reminds viewers of the great performances he turned in during the 1940s and early 1950s. Carol Ohmart is also wonderful as a bitchy gold-digger whom viewers will delight in watching getting her come-uppence, while Mantan Moreland, in a small part, turns in performance that, like Chaney, evokes pleasant memories of the 1940s when he was at the height of his comedic powers (even if he also comes to a very creepy end).

In many ways, the film straddles cinematic time periods. It has the appearance and flavor of a quirky 1960s low-budget drive-in film, but it's not only the presence of a rejuvenated Chaney and Moreland that calls to mind the 1940s; "Spider Baby" has at its core a spirit of craziness reminiscent of Monogram Pictures horror films. The combination adds up to a movie that has a one-of-a-kind quality that more than makes up for any budget- and pacing-related shortcomings. It's a film that any lover of B-movie classics needs to experience.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Nina Mae McKinney

In an alternate universe, Nina Mae McKinney is known as Hollywood's first black sex symbol.

Nina Maye McKinney was a charismatic singer, dancer, and actress with looks and talent that should have made her a star. But in 1920s and 1930s America, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with African Americans who were cut from the same cloth as could have been like Myrna Loy or Paulette Goddard or Greta Garbo. Instead, McKinney was relegated mostly to appearing in "race pictures," films made for distribution circuits that catered to black movie houses in the segregated South. Instead of taking her place among the stars--as her performance in "The Devil's Daugther" indicates she deserved... even if just among minor stars, like the low-budget beauties at Monogram--her show-business career centered mostly around singing in clubs.

McKinney did have one opportunity at movie stardom, however. She was cast as the leading lady in 1938's "The Duke Is Tops," but she fell ill before production began and the part was given to Lena Horne... and by 1942, Horne emerged as the first mainstream African American glamor queen.

In an alternate universe, Nina Mae McKinney is remembered as Hollywood's first black sex symbol, but in this one she died in 1967, forgotten and so obscure that no trade magazines even carried a death announcement.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Halle Berry

I'd never thought of actress Halle Berry as black until she herself made a big deal out of her blackness when she accepted her Academy Award. It seems to me that she is just as black as she is white, especially when taking her parents into account.

That said, she seems like the perfect candidate for a cinematic milestone in Black History: The starring role in the first 3D movie featuring an all-black cast and crew, with Spike Lee and Tyler Perry co-writing/producing/directing!

Click here to read reviews of movies with Halle Berry at Watching the Detectives.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mohammed Monday:
Respectable Islamophobia

Click here for more "Jesus and Mo"

'The Secrets of Sinister House' revealed!

Showcase Presents: The Secrets of Sinister House
(DC Comics, 2010)

Writers: Michael Fleisher, Joe Albano, E. Nelson Bridwell, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Olek, Robert Kanigher, George Kashdan,
Artists: Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Dick Giordano, Don Heck, Mike Sekowsky, Rico Rival, Alex Nino,
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

In the early 1970s, DC Comics made numerous attempts to expand their market beyond the superhero titles that have always been the bread-and-butter of the American comic book industry; they'd already been enjoying tremendous success with war titles, so it was reasonable to take a crack at fantasy, horror, sci-fi... and romance.

First published in September of 1971, "The Sinister House of Secret Love" was one of the less successful experiments, be it on a commercial or artistic level. The series began as a vehicle for "book-length" tales of gothic romance that, despite the fact the covers implied a degree of horror content, were so close-hewn to genre standards that one could use them as teaching aids in a class on the subject.

However, it must have quickly been obvious to the editors and business folks at DC Comics that their foray into the gothic romance market was not setting the publishing world on fire. The first four issues have covers with an unadulterated paperback romance novel cover vibe (complete with the standard "women running from houses" motif), but starting with the fourth issue they started making obvious attempts to play up the horror aspect of the gothic romance genre, first redesigning the cover logo so "The Sinister House" was really large and "of Secret Love" was very tiny and describing the story within the covers as a "graphic tale of gothic horror" even though it actually contained fewer overt horror elements than tale in issue #2; and retitling the series "Secrets of the Sinister House" as of issue #5.

But it wasn't enough, so by issue #6 the book-length gothic romance stories were gone and the title morphed into an anthology book, joining the long-running "House of Mystery" and "House of Secrets" horror/thriller anthology titles in DC's line-up. Several of the stories presented still had more of a romance flavor than most of the tales presented in DC Comics' horror anthologies--possibly because some had been commissioned as back-up stories like the one featured in the first issue of the series. However, "Secrets of the Sinister House" didn't catch on the way the other titles had, and by issue #18, it was cancelled.

Thanks to DC Comics' low-cost black-and-white series of "Showcase Presents" reprint books, all the tales presented in this failed experiment can now be enjoyed by modern audiences. It's a book that might appeal for a number of different reasons, although given the shift in direction halfway through, not everything is going to be of interest to everybody.

Fans of the gothic romance genre in particular might want to give the book a read as "The Curse of the MacIntyres" (from issue #1), "To Wed the Devil" (from issue #2) and "The Bride of the Falcon" (from issue #3) and "Death at Castle Dunbar" (from issue #5) are rather decent efforts, both story and artwise.

The second half of the book is of interest to fans of short-format horror comics, as it contains a couple dozen tales of marauding monsters, vicious villains, and poetic justice. As was the case with all of DC Comics' anthology titles, the entertainment value of these short stories varies greatly but the artwork is universally top-notch.

In fact, the only group this entire book will appeal to are lovers of comic books as an art-form as well as an entertainment medium. For the first half of the book, we get to see great artists like Don Heck, Tony DeZuniga, Dick Giordano, and Alex Toth at their finest, and in the case of Heck working in a rare non-superhero environment. The short horror stories with art by Alfredo Alcala, Rico Rival, and other artists from the Philippines are visually gorgeous--even more so in the black-and-white reprint format than in their original presentation--no matter how wretched some of the stories. In fact, with the exception of the art by Tony DeZuniga, just about every story in this book looks better than it did back when it was first presented 40 years ago... and the only reason DeZuniga's work suffers is because a number of panels and layouts were clearly designed with coloring in mind. As a result some seem a bit vacant and sparse in appearance.

"Secrets of the Sinister House" may be an uneven collection, but it's the sort of offbeat material that I hope to see more of in the "Showcase Presents" series. I'd REALLY love a book collecting the myriad of characters that came and went with barely a ripple, such as Nightmaster, Kong the Untamed, Firehair, and Black Orchid. I hope this volume of obscure non-superhero comics sells well enough to encourage DC Comics to bring us more of the same.

Trivia: In reading this book, I realized that "The Secrets of Sinister House" #8 was one of the first comics I ever read. "Paying with Fire" (the story of a boy, awful parents, and a dragon) and "Moonlight Bay" (the tale of a werewolf astronaut) stayed with me in my imagination to this very day. It was great to be reminded of where they came from originally.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Picture Perfect Special:
Princesses of Mars, Part Three

Here are some images showing what happens when you threaten a Martian princess with a knife. ("That's not a knife. THIS is a knife!")

By Mark Schultz
By George Perez

By Bob Layton

By Remi Dousset
By Ray Lago
To see a many more drawings of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Dejah Thoris, click here to visit Rob L.'s online galleries.

Friday, February 4, 2011

'Jailhouse Rock' shows Elvis capable of more than swiveling his hips

Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Starring: Elvis Presley, Judy Tyler, Mickey Shaughnessy, and Vaughn Taylor
Director: Richard Thorpe
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A violent young man (Presley) is sent to prison for manslaughter. Therem his cellmate (Shaughnessy) teaches him to play the guitar and sets him on a path that, with the help of a beautiful music promoter (Tyler) will put him on a path to fame and fortune. But will the corruption of the entertainment industry--with its collection of crooks more sinister than any prison ever held--and the soul-blinding light of stardom save him or ruin him?

"Jailhouse Rock" is a neat little rags-to-riches-to-ruin-to-redemption story that remains surprisingly fresh and entertaining to this day. Although the plot offers few surprises and the characters are about as stock as they can be, the acting performances are solid and the film moves along at a fast clip, with well-staged scenes and great editing. Presley fans can enjoy the further treat of some excellent performances by "The King", with the title song, perhaps being the single greatest Elvis recording ever, being enhanced by a great presentation.

While the plot offers no surprises, Elvis Presley does. If you've tried to sit through some of Elvis' pictures from the 1960s, you will find yourself wondering what happened to the talent he displays here. Presley shows a range in this film that I've never seen in other of his cinematic vehicles, managing to even make some eye-rollingly corny moments in the film bearable and even infuses some of the more dramatic scenes with real power.

Even if you're not much of a fan of Elvis Presley, this is film worth checking out. It's an interesting look at what might have been, if he had put more energy into developing his skills as an actor, and if he and his management had taken more care in choosing the film projects he got involved with.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jailhouse Rock: The Music Video

Here's a classic music video featuring the best song Evil Presley ever recorded.

And for comparison, here's a cover by the Blues Brothers (no video, just music).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Pam Grier, American Native

Authentically politically incorrect.

Actress Pam Grier has been a major American movie star since getting her start in Roger Corman's women-in-prison movie "The Big Doll House" in 1971. She will mark her 40th year in the film business with a role in the forthcoming Tom Hanks vehicle "Larry Crowne". It will be her 65th film appearance.

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