Monday, February 17, 2020

ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS!

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Just finished reading ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS!, a handsome trade paperback published by Skelos Press in 2014 and edited by Jeffrey Shanks. The book collects twenty short stories about zombies that were originally published in various pulp magazines between 1922 and 1941. Magazines represented here include the immortal WEIRD TALES as well as  UNKNOWN along with titles such as DIME MYSTERY, TERROR TALES and SPICY MYSTERY, mags that trafficked in more lurid, sensationalistic fare. 

As with any anthology built around a unifying theme, ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS! is a decidedly mixed bag. The best stories are, as to be expected, by the best writers, scribes who cut their teeth in the pages of the pulps and whose names are still recognized today by aficionados of horror,  fantasy and science fiction. These include H.P. Lovecraft's HERBERT WEST-REANIMATOR, THE CORPSE MASTER by Seabury Quinn, THE DEAD WHO WALK by Ray Cummings, August Derleth and Mark Schorer's THE HOUSE IN THE MAGNOLIAS, THE EMPIRE OF THE NECROMANCERS by Clark Ashton Smith, THE WALKING DEAD by E. Hoffman Price, Henry Kuttner's shocker THE GRAVEYARD RATS, Robert E. Howard's classic PIGEONS FROM HELL, and THE SONG OF THE SLAVES by Manly Wade Wellman. 

These stories by well known, established pulp authors are far and away the best of the bunch. Many of the other stories suffer from a repetition of basic plots and the annoying tendency to have the whole affair ultimately revealed as the work of a human, usually a mad scientist of some sort, who would have gotten away with it if not for those darn kids. 

Yep, they're "Scooby-Dos".

 One should also be aware that these stories were written and published in a decidedly different time and many of the yarns contain extremely non politically correct views on race and sex. Still, the stories do represent a sampling of the first great zombie craze that took place in popular fiction in the 1930s. If you read the whole book, you'll be solidly entertained but if you just want to go for the really good stuff, stick to the stories mentioned above. 

Recommended for pulp horror fans. 


Saturday, February 8, 2020

THE FRONT

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"Swimming's not a sport. Swimming is something you do so you shouldn't drown. A sport is something that's played with a ball."

I watched THE FRONT (1976) this afternoon for the first time since I saw it on its' original release. It's a brilliantly crafted comedy/drama about the notorious Communist blacklists of the early 1950s, a time when people working in the entertainment business (writers, directors, performers and others), found themselves unable to work because of alleged (and in some cases, actual) Communist ties and sympathies. It was a dark time in 20th Century American history, a time that ruined many people's lives, many of whom went on to work on this film. 

Director Martin Rittt, co-star Zero Mostel, actor Lloyd Gough and screenwriter Walter Bernstein (whose script earned a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination) were all blacklisted in the early '50s and each man brings that experience to bear front and center in this humorous, often dark, look at the intersection of art and politics.

Woody Allen, for once working only as an actor (rather than his traditional roles as writer/director/actor), stars as Howard Prince, a cashier in a bar who runs bets on the side. He's always losing and constantly having to borrow money form his more prosperous brother. When Howard's childhood friend and lifelong buddy, television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), is blacklisted he turns to Howard for help. Miller convinces Howard to serve as his "front" by submitting scripts penned by Miller  for the popular television program GRAND CENTRAL under Howard's name. When the scripts sell, Howard gets 10% of the pay.

The system works for a while but Howard begins to see other opportunities and eventually becomes a front for two other blacklisted writers. With the money he makes, Howard pays off his gambling debts, buys a new wardrobe and rents an upscale apartment. At the same time, he begins a romance with script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci). 

Things are going well until comic actor Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel in a masterful performance), finds himself being pressured to spy on Howard for the government in exchange for a dismissal of the charges pending against him. 

 The narrative climaxes with Howard testifying before a committee, a hearing which ends with Howard walking out, telling the feds to "go fuck yourselves", being arrested for contempt and ending up a hero. 

THE FRONT gets all of the period details right and it's beautifully shot by Michael Chapman (who lensed, among other films, Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976)  and RAGING BULL (1980)). All of the talent, both in front of and behind the camera, is first rate and the film succeeds admirably at mixing laughs with pathos. 

Recommended.



Thursday, December 12, 2019

THE LOST SQUADRON

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THE LOST SQUADRON (1932) is a two-fisted pre-Code Hollywood drama (produced by RKO)  that finds three pilots and their mechanic cast adrift in post WWI America.

 The men are Captain "Gibby" Gipson (Richard Dix), Lt. "Woody" Curwood (Robert Armstrong), "Red" (Joel McCrea) and Sgt. Fritz (Hugh Herbert). The men were aces in the war torn skies over France during the Great War but have a hard time returning to their normal lives. Gibby, who longs to be reunited with his lover, Follete Marsh (the luminous Mary Astor), finds her in the arms of another man. 

It's Woody that saves the day. He takes a job in Hollywood as a stunt flier for the maniacal independent film director Arthur von Furst (Erich von Stroheim). Gibby, Red and Fritz join Woody on the movie set and it's there that plot complications arise. 

The leading lady in von Furst's next film is none other than his now wife, Follete. The director becomes insanely jealous of Gibby and tries to sabotage his plane. But it's Woody who flies the crate to his death, prompting Gibby and Red to mete out their own justice upon von Furst. They do so but there is now blood on their hands and one of the remaining pilots must atone for their sins. Since Red is engaged to be married to Woody's kid sister, The Pest (Dorothy Jordan), it's up to Gibby, a tragic hero if there ever was one, to pay the price. 

THE LOST SQUADRON is a grim, no-nonsense drama full of exciting aerial combat, well staged "fake" combat for the cameras, lovely young ladies, a hissable villain and three square jawed heroes. It reflects the rougher subject matter and thematic concerns found in many pre-Code Hollywood films. It's no WINGS (1927), but it's an extremely well made film that is worth seeing.

Highly recommended. 



Tuesday, December 10, 2019

THE PURPLE GANG

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"...the whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang..."

Yeah, I know, I've never heard of this one either. But I did watch it the other day (courtesy of TCM) and I'm here to fill you in on this obscure crime film.

THE PURPLE GANG (1960) is an unmitigated UNTOUCHABLES wanna-be with a stentorian voice-over narration, a period setting (Detroit during Prohibition), and criminal exploits based on real people and incidents. It's a low budget, cheaply produced film that is padded out with numerous montage sequences that feature actual archival stock footage and scenes that look like they were liberally "borrowed" from other crime films. 

Barry (PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES) Sullivan stars as square jawed police detective Bill Harley. He's up against the notorious Purple Gang, a motley crew of juvenile delinquents headed by an over the top Robert Blake as "Honeyboy". The Purple Gang start out as small time thugs but quickly muscle in on a booze smuggling ring demanding protection money. The hoods are soon in control of a major crime organization that expands its' scope into all sorts of illegal operations. Naturally, this attracts the attention of rival mobs. A crew from St. Louis attempts to take over, a threat which the Purples quickly eliminate. But when the Mafia comes to town, an all out gang war erupts. 

Women do not fare well in this film. We're introduced to a dedicated social worker, Joan MacNamara (Jody Lawrence), early in the film. She truly believes she can help the troubled youths who are terrorizing the citizens of Detroit. The Purples rape and murder her. Gladys (Elaine Edwards), detective Harley's pregnant wife, is menaced by the gang in her own home, an act that leads to her death. And Daisy (Suzanne Ridgway), who confesses to every murder in the city to the police, is killed when she really does witness a slaying. 

THE PURPLE GANG is not a bad little film at all. It's an interesting vehicle for Robert Blake and director Frank McDonald keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. It's no classic but you could do a lot worse. 



Friday, December 6, 2019

RADIO DAYS

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"He deserves an enema" 

RADIO DAYS (1987) is Woody Allen's valentine to the Golden Age of American radio. This is an era, having been born in 1956, that  I know about only through books and recordings. But Allen grew up in the late 1930s and early '40s and brilliantly captures the look and sounds of a lost day and time. 

Allen plays Joe, the adult narrator of this sweet exercise in nostalgia while Seth Greene portrays Joe onscreen as a youth. Joe lives in Rockaway Beach with his large, extended family, all of whom are regular radio listeners, each one enjoying his or her favorite program. Young Joe is enamored of the MASKED AVENGER show, only to learn years later that the square jawed hero of the adventure program was played by a short, bald actor (Wallace Shawn). 

Joe's family is portrayed as a working class Jewish clan who bicker and fight amongst themselves but are ultimately a tightly bound family unit who truly love each other. Their lives of unrequited love and dreams yet to be achieved are contrasted with the glamour and style of the celebrities that are heard on the radio shows, swells in the studio by day, and later, part of the see and be seen crowds at  impossibly stylized night clubs. Radio, as Allen presents it here, is truly the stuff that dreams are made of, whether for young Joe or ditzy cigarette girl Sally (Mia Farrow), who dreams of becoming a radio star, an ambition that she finally realizes through a colorful series of events.

Allen uses such now legendary radio touchstones as Orson Welles's  WAR OF THE WORLDS 1939 Halloween broadcast and the sudden news bulletin of the attack on Pearl Harbor ("Who's Pearl Harbor?" Sally wants to know), to build comic scenarios around. Joe and his young friends spy upon a naked woman in her apartment, later to discover she's their substitute teacher ("We are all, without a doubt, going straight to hell"), and muse about their favorite female movie stars. One lad favors Rita Hayworth, another Betty Grable while a third has the hots for Dana Andrews ("Dana Andrews is a boy? With a name like Dana?")

The cast is excellent. Allen uses a lot of his regular players to great advantage, often in just bit parts and cameo appearances. The cast includes Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Larry Davis, Julie Kavner, Diane Keaton, Kenneth Mars, Josh Mostlel, Don Pardo, Tony Roberts, Michael Tucker, and Dianne Wiest. 

The art direction by Santo Loquasto received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. His brilliant recreation of New York and surrounding environs is spot on. Carlos Di Palma (another regular Allen collaborator), gives his cinematography a slightly golden hue when depicting the fabulous night clubs and Radio City Music Hall ("It was like entering Heaven") while Joe's home is shot with a subdued color palette. 

But it's the music that is the real star of RADIO DAYS. Tons of great, big band songs are heard throughout the film and provide touchstones and memory markers for many of the characters. Like Joe says, whenever he hears "Marzy Doats" he can't help but remember the time his neighbor had a nervous breakdown and ran out into the street in his underclothes brandishing a butcher axe. 

 Joe admits that he can't help but romanticize the past but that's no crime.
 
We all do. 

And Woody Allen does so beautifully in RADIO DAYS. 

Highest recommendation. 




BLACK ALIBI

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Cornell Woolrich's BLACK ALIBI (1942), is a master class in the art of the psychological suspense novel. Set in Ciudad Real (the third largest city in South America), ALIBI finds a black leopard, originally intended as part of a publicity stunt, escaped and on the loose in the dark passageways of the ancient city. 

No sooner does the giant beast escape than deaths start occurring, all of which are attributed to the cat. But something about the killings (all of the victims are beautiful young women alone on the streets after dark) just doesn't add up. Manning, the publicity agent who cooked up the leopard stunt in the first place, suspects a human hand and mind behind the killings while police chief  Robles is 100% sure that the leopard is the killer. 

To prove his theory, Manning sets a trap using a beautiful young woman as bait. The trap is sprung however, and the young woman is whisked away into the night, leading Manning on a frantic race against time that climaxes in an ancient underground torture chamber in a sequence dripping with pure pulp horror. 

Woolrich presents each killing as an entire chapter, taking the time to develop the character of the victim and the locale and atmosphere of the city. He slowly ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable degree before finally releasing the tension. 

The first killing is that of a young girl, sent by her mother to a late night market to buy food. The girl is followed back to her home by something which attacks her just outside of the family's front door. It's a brilliant sequence, punctuated by wild screams of terror, the sound of something immense hitting the door and capped off by a slow trickle of blood under the threshold.

The next victim is trapped in a gated and locked cemetery after dark. The girl here has come to meet her lover but finds unbearable terror lurking in the darkness. Clo Clo, a "B" girl and semi prostitute is the next victim, followed by an American tourist who is savaged alongside a pastoral lake on the outskirts of the city. 

To say anything more about the ending of BLACK ALIBI would ruin the final narrative twist that Woolrich employs to tie everything up. No spoilers here, except to say that it's a shocker.

Shortly after publication, BLACK ALIBI was sold to RKO and producer Val Lewton's low budget horror film unit. The novel was filmed under the title of THE LEOPARD MAN in 1943. The setting was changed from South America to a small village in New Mexico but director Jacques Tourenur effectively uses the scene of the blood under the door to establish the mood and atmosphere early on in the film. It's a fine film, one that's well worth your time but if you want the real, unadulterated original thriller, you must read BLACK ALIBI.

Highest recommendation.




Thursday, November 28, 2019

FRIGHT

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FRIGHT (1950) is the first book I've read by the legendary Cornell Woolrich. It won't be the last. In fact, as soon as I finished FRIGHT last night, I started reading BLACK ALIBI (1942 and the basis for the classic 1943 horror film THE LEOPARD MAN). So far, so good. I'll post a review when I finish it. 

But for now, FRIGHT.

 Wow. 

This book is permeated with a palpable sense of paranoia in every paragraph. Every page is soaked with doom. Bleak House may have been a novel by Charles Dickens but it's where Woolrich's characters live their lives of impending annihilation. 

FRIGHT is set in the New York City of 1915, an odd choice for a noir novel, but Woolrich makes the time period work to his advantage. Young Prescott Marshall, a successful Wall Street broker is scheduled to marry the love of his life, the incandescently beautiful Marjorie Worth. But a drunken night on the town finds Prescott saddled with a blackmailing vixen who will stop at nothing to bleed the young man dry. In a furious fit of anger, Prescott murders the woman, just hours before his wedding ceremony. 

Prescott and his bride immediately move from New York to a never-named city somewhere in the heartland. Prescott gets a job at less pay than he made in New York and things are going okay until a strange man shows up in Prescott's office. Prescott is convinced that the man is a detective from New York who is following Prescott's trail. Prescott's paranoia leads him to commit two murders before he and Marjorie return to New York where more lives are ended. 

Just when you think this is the bleakest, most depressing ending to a story you've ever read, Woolrich pulls his trump card from up his sleeve by delivering a sucker punch, never-saw-it-coming epilogue that pulls the rug out from everything. 

To say any thing more about the twists and turns that this brilliant novel takes would spoil the delight of discovering them for yourself. No spoilers here.

Read FRIGHT and prepare to be plunged into a nightmare world in which one bad deed leads to another, and another, and another. 

Highest recommendation.