Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mediocre Gothic Thriller with a Goofy Title

Terror Creatures from the Grave
(aka "Cemetery of the Living Dead")(1965)

Starring: Walter Brandi, Mirella Maravidi, Barbara Shelley, and Alfredo Rizzo
Director: Massimo Pupillo (credited to producer Ralph Zucker)
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An attorney (Brandi) answers an urgent request to prepare a will for a country doctor living at an isolated estate. When he arrives, his strange wife (Shelley) and neurotic daughter (Maravidi) tell him the doctor couldn't have written the letter as he's been dead for over a year. Before he can sort out the mystery, the doctor's old friends start dying as well, apparent victims of the ghosts evil sorcerers who spread a plague across the land 500 years ago.

We are informed during the main credits that "Terror Creatures from the Grave" was inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe; it certainly bears more resemblance to them than several films that have claimed to be based on them (such as several Lugosi vehicles from Universal), I think I'll still have to go with the Real Thing over this movie.

The film's hero, an attorney visiting a house of secrets and madness, certainly feels like he stepped out of a Poe story, and Barbara Shelley, yet again playing another two-faced, treacherous bitch who causes not only her own downfall but also that of pretty much the entire cast, also could easily have been a Poe character, but the film never quite manages to be as creepy as a Poe story. It has some nice moments, but in general in plods along too slowly to generate any real sense of dread and fear in the viewer. The mystery of a dead man writing letters in intriguing, the array of characters present clearly set the stage for some Very Bad Things, but the film wastes too much time with overlong establishing shots and with too many meandering scenes for it to really add up to anything.

Except for roughly the last ten minutes. When the Plague Spreaders FINALLY make their appearance, we finally get some real spookiness. Although the climax is ultimately a bit rushed and relies a bit too much on the Deus Ex Machina, it's a pay-off worth waiting for. Steele's death scene is especially chilling and well-filmed.

(Oh... I don't think it's much a spoiler to reveal that Steele is the villainess and that she comes to a bad end. It's her place in most films she appeared in, and it's pretty obvious from the outset.)

There's nothing in "Terror Creatures from the Grave" that you haven't seen done better elsewhere, but it's main offense is its mediocrity. Fans of Barbara Steele will enjoy it more than most, but even for those it's not worth going to far out of your way for. But if present in one of those movie mega-packs, which is where I came across it, it's a bit of harmless filler that's worth checking out when you're in the mood of nightgowns and candlesticks and creepy castles.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Eclipso' make you wonder why

Showcase Presents: Eclipso (DC Comics, 2009)
Writer: Bob Haney
Artists: Jack Sparling, Alex Toth, Lee Elias, and Bernard Baily
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

There are some comic book ideas that should never be made into ongoing series. Eclipso is one those. Although the basic premise--brilliant scientist Bruce Gordon transforms into an evil being bent on destruction when there's an eclipse--has plenty of potential, the limitation of it should also have been evident to editors if not to creator Bob Haney.

The fundamental problem with "Eclipso" is that eclipses aren't exactly an every day occurrence, they're easily predictable, and a brilliant scientist like Bruce Gordon should easily be able to limit the menace of his alter-ego by locking himself away during those rare occurrences. Of course, being a genius, Bruce does try to lock himself away for a couple of the stories, but the attempts in each case because Someone Does Something Stupid.

And that's where the other problems with "Eclipso" some in, problems that amplified when one reads several of the stories back-to-back in this collected volume.

With eclipses being easily predictable, not exactly every day occurrences, writer Bob Haney has to go through some rather goofy gyrations to bring the title character of the strip into many of the stories. The most rediculous of these are the "artificial eclipse" that happens when a boulder rolls by the mouth of a gave Bruce Gordon finds himself in. If this was the only time such silly plot contrivance had to be deployed, it could be forgiven, but it is only one of many.

Another problem with the set-up is the fact that the Eclipso identity is a costumed character that also needs a magical black gem in order to function. Each time Elcipso appears, he needs to retrieve his outfit and his gem, something else that leads to some ridiculous moments in a couple of the early stories. The fix that Haney comes up--splitting Eclipso and Gordon into two separate beings--gets rid of the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of the set-up and allows Gordon to actively take part in attempts to eliminate this evil alter-ego. Initially, it's a good approach, even if it doesn't fix the central problem with the fact that eclipses shouldn't as hard to deal with as they appear to be in the World of Bruce Gordon.

For all my complaints, "Eclipso" is fun in the same sort of way that cheesy sci-fi movies from the 1950s are fun: The level of free-wheeling nonsense present in each tale is an attraction in-and-of-itself and perhaps in the small doses it was originally presented in that might be enough to carry the series. Certainly, the publisher and editors at National Periodicals/DC Comics must have thought so, even if the fact there was enough material published in "House of Secrets" to fill this book makes me wonder "why"?

The first two "Eclipso" stories feel fresh and engaging, with their sci-fi take on the Jekyll and Hyde myth; for the modern reader they even demonstrate how long the pipe-dream of practical solar energy has fired imaginations as the first target of Eclipso's evil is a grand city that runs entirely on solar power. But once those are behind us, the limitations of the concept become evident and Haney's struggles to deal with them fall somewhere between the Labors of Hercules and the Punishment of Sisyphus. While I can easily picture editors being blinded to the flaws in the scripts for the half-dozen stories featuring the exciting line work of Alex Toth, the inconsistent art of Jack Sparling--who drew the bulk of the stories and who often couldn't make a character appear the same from panel to panel, let alone from page to page--should have made even the most content-hungry editor consider better options. (Of course, it's possible that readers loved Eclipso and that's why the series stuck around. There is, after all, no accounting for taste.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

'The Sadist' is surprisingly effective

The Sadist (aka "Profile in Terror") (1963)
Starring: Arch Hall Jr, Helen Hovey, Richard Alden, Marilyn Manning, and Don Russell
Director: James Landis
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Three friends (Alden, Hovey, and Russell) are subject to terror mind-games and cold-blooded murder when car trouble lands them under the power of a psychotic killer (Hall) and his deranged girlfriend (Manning).

Here's a film that anyone who is trying to make a horror movie on a low budget needs to see. That goes double if you have your heart set on making the latest, greatest torture porn epic. Even in this age where even comedies feature vicious brutality, "The Sadist" has several effect and shocking moments.

One thing "The Sadist" has going for it is that it wastes no time in getting started, and it keeps a steady pace through to the very end. The movie starts with our hapless victims stuck in a deserted junk yard and we are given their back story as the creepiness of the place builds... and the titular sadist and his twisted girl sidekick make their appearance at just the right moment. Another is the fact the murders are varied--one has a long build and tension-filled build-up and another comes suddenly and shockingly. Finally, the movie closes with an ending more effective than I would ever have expected from a cheap film like this. It is also refreshing that the characters stay consistent through to the end--it's nice to see that there was a time where screenwriters could write a suspense film where characters don't inexplicably transform from cowards to Kung-Fu fighting bad-asses in the final reel.

One surprisingly effective part of the film is the performance given by Arch Hall Jr. When he first made his appearance as the killer, walking as though he has crapped his pants and squinting and grimacing and speaking a voice that is anything but menacing, I thought this movie that started so strong had just veered into "so bad its good" territory.

But as silly as Hall seems initially, his over-the-top performance develops a frightening quality, because there is no doubt whatsoever that this is one guy who is completely off his rocker. The funny walk is probably Hall's way of trying to show the murderer is barely more than an animal, as there is a simian quality to his gait. (He mostly drops the walk during the film's climactic quarter hour, an extended game of cat-and-mouse between him and his victims. And it is during this part of movie where Hall is genuinely scary.)

The rest of the cast are adequate, giving solid performances of well-drawn and consistent characters, making this a surprisingly entertaining movie that is worth seeking out.

Picture Perfect Special: Changing for Spring

Janet Leigh

Angelina Jolie

Marlene Dietrich

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Josh Howard Horror

Here's a small gallery of horror art from Josh Howard, the writer/artist behind graphics novels such as "Dark Harvest", "The Lost Books of Eve", and "Clubbing".

If you like the spooky stuff, be sure to visit Terror Titans, my horror movie-centric blog.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mohammed Monday:
Did you feel the earth move, too?

Today's Mo-toon recalls the "Boobquake" event from last year while reminding us of the root cause of the destructive earthquake that hit Japan this past week. (Click on the picture for a larger, legible version.)

At this point, it's unknown which immodest woman caused that earthquake, but the Tectonic Tuesday research project will soon identify the culprit.

Meanwhile, here are a few likely suspects....

Milla Jovovich
Halle Berry
Jennifer Love Hewitt

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

'The Gambler and the Lady' is worth a chance

The Gambler and the Lady (1952)
Starring: Dane Clark, Naomi Chance, Meredith Edwards, Kathleen Byron, and Erich Pohlmann
Director: Sam Newfield, Patrick Jenkins and Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An American hood living in London (Clark) wants more than to just be the guy who made his fortune owning popular night clubs and running successful after-hours gambling parlors... he wants to accepted among the circle of the British ruling class the admires so much. When he befriends the beautiful and truly noble-in-spirit Lady Susan (Chance), it appears his dream may come true. But will gangsters trying to take over his businesses, bitter ex-employees, and his own naive belief that the British upper class is inherently more honest and decent than men of the street like himself conspire to destroy him first?

"The Gambler and a Lady" unfolds like a Greek tragedy, with everyone around Jim Forster, the American street tough turned die-hard Anglophile, warning him that the upper-crust is not a place for him, nor are those who are already there the kind of people he imagines. But, like all tragic heroes, Jim forges ahead, pursuing his hopes and dreams... and ultimately dooming himself and everyone and everything he ever cared about. The end of the film is its starting point, but even if it wasn't, it is no surprise that Jim comes to a sad end, nor how he got there; each step that he thinks leads him closer to his dream turns out in the end to be another factor in his downfall and only Jim is blind to this fact until it's too late.

Although Dane Clark will never be enshrined among history's great actors, he had a real knack for portraying Everyman and tough guys with soft interiors, both of which made him perfect for the role in "The Gambler and the Lady". In the hands of a lesser actor, or a more handsome one, the character of Jim could easily have come across as pathetic rather than sympathetic. While the entire cast is good in their parts--as is the case with most of these black-and-white Hammer crime dramas given that we see the same supporting actors over and over again--it really is Cook who makes the movie.

"The Gambler and the Lady" was reportedly shot in less than a month, and with a configuration of three directors in order to allow American writer/director Sam Newfield to help the project without drawing flak from the British labor unions, but any production difficulties aren't to be seen in the final product. It's a fast-paced, interesting and compelling drama that features more action than is the norm for Hammer's black-and-white thrillers and it easily ranks among the best of the films born from the partnership between the English studio and American B-movie producer Robert Lippert.

This is a movie that doesn't deserve the obscurity it has languished in for the past many decades. It's worth checking out for anyone who enjoys classic movies.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Det er Fastelavn i dag!

If you don't know what that means, you're probably not Danish!

Here are pictures of girls with masks... but what I really want are some fastelavnsboller. (But you can spare the fastelavnris!)

For more hidden beauties, click here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

'On the Spot' is where gangsters drop dead

Given the thoughts that occurred to me while writing this review, this turned into a bit of a hold-over from Black History Month.

On the Spot (1940)
Starring: Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland
Director: Howard Bretherton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After two gangsters are gunned down at the soda counter in a small-town drug store, the only witnesses to the crimes, a soda clerk and a hotel porter (Darro and Moreland), become the focus of both media and gangland attention when everyone becomes convinced they know the location of loot from a bank robbery. They take it upon themselves to identify the mysterious killer before they become the next victims.

"One the Spot" is a light-hearted mystery flick that is worth watching these days for the look it provides into race relations of 1940s mainstream America. On the one hand, there is a casual, unconscious racism directed at Mantan Moreland's Jefferson character by the reporters and gangsters, but on the other hand, there's no such attitude from his friend Frankie the soda clerk and wanna-be scientist. Yes, Frankie bosses Jefferson around and puts him in danger, but that has nothing to do with Jefferson's skin color. You have the sense that Frankie would treat Jefferson the exact same way if he was white.

This relationship between Darro and Moreland's characters is actually a common one for the films they made for Monogram Pictures; they made enough together that one can almost label them a "comedy duo" (if someone hasn't already). The two invariably portray characters who are friends rather than employer and servant, as was usually the case when a black character appeared in a mainstream movie of the time. Moreland's character keeps getting into trouble thanks to Darro's hairbrained schemes and dreams for success he has for both of them, but they soldier on together due to the mutual loyalty. For all the rampant racism that supposedly existed at all levels and in all facets of American society, it's an interesting pair of characters.

I admit to being too lazy to anything but the most casual of research into Moreland, Darro, and their roles at Monogram, but even a simple reviewer such as myself can see that Moreland was treated with a level of respect by the studio's marketing department that few black actors in the 1930s and 1940s enjoyed: He often had equal billing with white co-stars on posters, and he was always listed high on the cast lists. Monogram clearly valued him as a comedian and an audience draw, but I also wonder if someone at the studio wasn't trying to change race attitudes through popular culture.

That said, though, this film does feature Mantan Moreland in the sort of role that made small-minded people sneer at him during the 1960s. Jefferson hewers closely to the stereotype of a not-too-bright, superstitious black man who is a afraid of everything, including his own shadow. It's a character that was something of a signature for Moreland--and one that was a comedic staple even in films made exclusively for black audiences--and when he portrayed this character type, he was quite funny. In some Monogram films, Moreland's character is actually smarter than the white main characters, with "King of the Zombies" being a perfect example of this.

Beyond the look at how race was approached in B-movies in the 1940s, "On the Spot" is moderately entertaining so long as you don't think too hard while watching it. The jokes are mostly amusing, and the supporting cast is made up of talented actors. The biggest problems with the film is the fact that it's a one-suspect mystery, although I give filmmakers credit for playing fair with the audience by establishing that one suspect with evidence put before the viewers early in the film; and the fact that the mystery could have been mostly solved if the reporters and the law enforcement officials in the film weren't among the dumbest such characters to ever appear on the silver screen. And ultimately, the killer isn't much smarter, even if the plan that brought him to the small town was pretty ingenious. (In fact, it was so clever that it almost warrants a movie unto itself, if it hasn't been done.)