Wednesday, October 21, 2020

THE BLACK CURTAIN

 


THE BLACK CURTAIN (1941) is the fourth Cornell Woolrich novel I've read in the last year or so. Although it starts out strong, the ending feels a bit forced and contrived. However, that in no way lessened my enjoyment of the book and my anticipation of savoring more Woolrich novels in the future. 

CURTAIN deals with the classic noir trope of amnesia. A freak accident restores Frank Townsend's memory one day but he's left with a three year gap in his life that he has no recollection of. He soon finds himself hunted by a mysterious man in gray. Townsend goes back to the street where the narrative opening accident occurred, hoping to find some clue to his missing past. He finds a young girl who knows him as Dan Nearing and knows he's wanted for murder. Townsend and the girl team up to discover the real killer and it's here where things get a bit stretched.

From out of nowhere, Townsend suddenly develops and employs deductive skills second only to Sherlock Holmes. He can decode Morse Code sent by eye blinks (!) and figures out how the deadly shotgun blast was engineered in a fantastical way. 

Still, Woolrich keeps the tension turned up to maximum throughout resulting in a satisfying thriller of psychological suspense. BLACK CURTAIN was filmed as STREET OF CHANCE in 1942 (a film I have not seen but will be on the look out for), as a radio drama on SUSPENSE in 1943 and as a Sydney Pollack directed episode of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR (no surprise, this material is straight up Hitch's alley) in 1962. 

Recommended for all noir fans. 


Sunday, October 4, 2020

SENSE OF WONDER


This is another one of those "woulda, coulda, shoulda" pieces that I hate to write. 

I recently finished reading SENSE OF WONDER: A LIFE IN COMIC FANDOM (TwoMorrows, 2001) by Bill Schelly. Boy, do I wish I had read this absolutely wonderful book sometime before last September. You see, Bill Schelly passed away on September 12th of 2019. If I had read this book while he was still alive, I most certainly would have reached out to him in some way to let him know how much I enjoyed his book. 

SENSE OF WONDER, subtitled "A Personal Memoir of Fandom's Golden Age", is exactly that. It's a heartfelt look back at one young man's discovery of both comic books and subsequently, comic book fanzines in the early and mid 1960s. While Schelly was slightly older than me, I could nonetheless identity with a lot of the things he writes about. Schelly's love for comics and zines ultimately led him to publish his own fanzines, of which, SENSE OF WONDER was the longest running and, in the end, most professionally produced of all of the zines he cranked out either alone or with the assistance of likeminded fans. 

It's a wonderful, "you-are-there" look back at a truly magical time in American comic book history aided immensely by Schelly's stellar prose. SENSE OF WONDER is an often funny, sometimes deeply moving accounting of one man's coming of age at the same time his most beloved of media was experiencing immense growing pains itself. 

Recently, SENSE OF WONDER was re-released with additional material by Schelly that frames his various adventures through the lens of a young gay man, which Schelly was. His homosexuality is only vaguely hinted at in the original edition of SENSE and even though I haven't read the expanded version, I have no doubt that it can only be an improvement on what Schelly had already accomplished. Schelly comes across as honest, thoughtful and insightful about comics, life, and various relationships and I'm sure the new edition sheds additional light on his unfortunately way too short life. 

The only other book by Bill Schelly that I've read is EMPIRE OF MONSTERS (Fantagraphics, 2019), his brilliant biography of horror magazine publisher James Warren. I have a few other Schelly scribed and/or edited tomes here in the old man-cave that I'll get to hopefully sooner rather than later. These include his Joe Kubert (one of my all time favorite comic book artists) biography, MAN OF ROCK (2008), the stunning hardcover collection THE ART OF JOE KUBERT (2011), COMIC FANDOM READER (2002), THE BEST OF ALTER EGO (2008)  (with the legendary Roy Thomas, my all-time favorite comic book writer) and THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMIC FANDOM (1995). 

In addition to these and other books on comics fandom, Schelly wrote two books about the great Otto Binder, a critically acclaimed bio of John (Little Lulu) Stanley and an Eisner Award winning book about the legendary Harvey (MAD) Kurtzman. 

Had Schelly lived, there's no doubt he would have continued to contribute meticulously researched, lively written volumes of comics history spotlighting both the endless trove of treasures contained in fanzines, the phenomenon of fandom itself and the creative men and women who brought those wonderful four-color fantasies to life. 

I deeply regret not having had the chance to communicate with this talented man while he was with us. If you have even the slightest interest in the history of comic books, I urge you to seek out and read any and all of the books you can find with the Bill Schelly byline. I promise, you won't be disappointed. 


 

Friday, October 2, 2020

"TROLLOP? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?"

 


Platinum tressed sexpot Mamie Van Doren, poured into a pair of blue jeans and a too-tight sweater, shimmies and shakes her way through several godawful "rock 'n roll" song and dance numbers in the notorious '50s exploitation film UNTAMED YOUTH (1957). The "musical" numbers serve to pad out the 80 minutes running time which would otherwise clock in at less than hour without Van Doren repeatedly strutting her stuff. 

UNTAMED YOUTH is the tale of a group of wayward teens and young adults (all of the actors are clearly way too old for the parts and totally unconvincing as "youth"), who are arrested and forced to serve their terms doing hard labor on a cotton farm. These kids can work in the cotton fields all day (often wearing improper clothing, no sign of protective hats and occasionally bursting into songs) and then dance and sing the night away back in the mess hall. Boy, do those kids have a lot of energy! Anyone else would be totally exhausted after a day of back breaking labor but not these untamed youth. 

The cotton farm is owned by the sinister Russ Tropp (John Russell), a crook who is out to exploit not only the youth at his command but also a number of illegal alien workers about to cross over from Mexico. It's all part of a plot cooked up by Tropp and corrupt Judge Steele (Lurene Tuttle), who conveniently sentences young offenders that come before her to work on the farm. Turns out Tropp and Steele are secretly married (it's definitely a May-December romance), with Tropp using the Judge for his own ends. 

Steele's son, Bob (Don Burnett), takes a job on the farm only to discover the misdeeds taking place there including the working to death of a young woman, Baby (Yvonne Fedderson), who is five months pregnant at the time of her death. Bob, along with the plucky Lowe sisters, Penny (Van Doren) and Jane (Lori Nelson), uncover Tropp's scheme and shut down the entire operation.

Cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie shoots most of Tropp's scenes from an extreme low angle making the already tall man seem even more visually imposing. Tall, dark and handsome, John Russell had a long career in both television and feature films. He starred on two television series in the 1950s, SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE (1955-1957) and LAWMAN (1958-1962) and appeared in three Clint Eastwood films: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976), HONKYTONK MAN (1982) and PALE RIDER (1985). 

Real life rock star Eddie Cochran is featured as "Bong", one of the "kids" and he's featured in a couple of musical numbers. 

Lori Nelson is known to genre fans for her appearances in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955) and Roger Corman's THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955) while Van Doren's genre work includes THE NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS (1966) and VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1965). 

UNTAMED YOUTH is nowhere as taboo shattering as it's reputation would lead one to believe. It's a fairly routine story with a serviceable supporting cast. But make no mistake about it, UNTAMED YOUTH is Mamie Van Doren's film from beginning to end. She's there to sell tickets, raise eyebrows and quicken male pulses, both young and old.  

She succeeds at doing these in a most magnificent way.



Tuesday, September 29, 2020

WAR OF THE WILD, WILD PLANETS


Within the last week, TCM has run two of the four "Gamma-One" Italian science fiction films. These low-budget monstrosities were produced in the mid '60s, utilizing the same production company, cast members, sets and recycled special effects sequences. The films, in order are WILD, WILD PLANET (1966), WAR OF THE PLANETS (1966), WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS (1966) and SNOW DEVILS (1967). It's not necessary to watch these films in their order of release but I include this information for anyone who feels compelled to do so. The two films that TCM ran (and which I've had the dubious pleasure to watch) are WILD, WILD PLANET and WAR OF THE PLANETS. They're both truly dreadful, craptastic exercises in bad genre filmmaking. But that's besides the point of this post. 

Watching these films took me back to my high school days when I would often spend the night at my buddy Blake Brown's house. It was always a blast to spend a night there because Blake had "cable television." In Austin, Texas in the early '70s, "cable television" meant that for a monthly price you could receive all of the Austin broadcast channels as well as the stations in San Antonio (the closest big city). That's it. Remember, there really was no true "cable television" until the early 1980s so getting to watch television stations from another city (and with good reception) was really a big deal for us. Especially on Friday nights. 

That was when KSAT, the San Antonio ABC affiliate, would broadcast "Project Terror", their late night package of horror/science fiction films. The show was always a double feature, with the first film starting at 10:30. "Project Terror" billed itself as being where "the scientific and the terrifying meet" and to prove it, the opening focused on a blinking green oscilloscope (oh, scary!). No matter how cheesy these films were, Blake and I were determined to stay awake as long as possible and try desperately to make it to the end of the second feature. 

Our marathon movie watching was fortified by snacks provided by his mother and when I say "snacks", I mean SNACKS! Whenever I was over there on a Friday night, Mrs. Brown would provide both of us with homemade bowls of both guacamole dip and queso, along with giant size bags of Fritos. These were no ordinary bowls. These were mixing bowls full of home made goodness. 

We'd polish off the bowls of dip during the first feature of "Project Terror" and during the commercial break before the second film started, we'd raid the kitchen for more food, this time consisting of incredibly thick peanut butter and strawberry preserves sandwiches (on white bread) and ice cold milk in the biggest glasses we could find. Thus restocked, we'd head back to the den for more sf/horror wonderment. 

I bring all of this up because while I don't recall ever actually seeing WAR OF THE PLANETS or WILD, WILD PLANET on "Project Terror", these are exactly the kinds of films that would have aired on that program. The fact that they were (and remain), horrible movies, is beside the point. Watching these two films over the last several days served as the best kind of time machine, taking me back to an earlier, more innocent age when watching badly dubbed Italian science fiction films with a good buddy and stuffing myself with dip, chips and sandwiches was nothing short of pure bliss. 


Saturday, September 19, 2020

SHE

 

There's a lot of good to be said about Hammer Studios 1965 production of SHE. Filmed in CinemaScope, with exteriors lensed in Israel, the film is handsomely mounted and extremely ambitious for a studio known for it's lower budgeted Gothic horror films. 

Chief among the good things about SHE is the star of the film, the top billed Ursula Andress. Andress, one of the great screen beauties of the '60s, became a cinematic icon due to her appearance in the first James Bond film, DR. NO (1962). By the time Andress made SHE, she was a major international film star and Hammer knew they had a good thing with her as Ayesha ("She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed") in the lead. 

The supporting cast includes Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing (as one of the heroes) and Christopher Lee as the villain. John Richardson, sporting a blond dye job and spray on tan, is Leo Vincey, the man who appears to be the reincarnation of Ayesha's long lost love, Kallikrates. Richardson co-starred with another '60s sex symbol, Raquel Welch, in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966). 

The bulk of the action takes place in the lost city of Kuma, somewhere in Africa. Allegedly founded by a tribe of Egyptian outcasts, Kuma displays a diverse culture, seemingly made up of equal parts Roman and Egyptian influences, with few women to be seen. The Kumans have enslaved the native tribe, the Amahagger, but the oppressed people revolt in the action packed third act. 

Veteran director Robert Day orchestrates all of the action well enough but the film suffers from a tediously paced second act that's heavy on expository dialogue and the burgeoning romance between Ayesha and Leo (Andress and Richardson share little if any real onscreen chemistry). While native girl Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) truly loves Leo for himself, not for whom he may have been centuries before, but the plucky girl meets an unfortunate end. 

Director Day made several genre films in his career including THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958), CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958), FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959), TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960), TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES (1963), TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD (1966) and TARZAN AND THE GREAT RIVER (1967). 

Based on the classic adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard, first published in 1887, SHE was previously filmed in 1935. Produced by Merian (KING KONG) C. Cooper, the film stars Randolph Scott as Leo and Helen Gahagan as Ayesha. Some aficionados prefer this version of the material with it's pulp adventure atmosphere. 

SHE proved to be the box office success that Hammer hoped it would be and a sequel, THE VENGEANCE OF SHE was released in 1968 with Olinka Berova in the title role. 

Counting only the good on location cinematography by Harry Waxman, impressive sets, nice matte work and decent for the time special effects, SHE is enjoyable film. But with the always solid Cushing and Lee in the cast and the incandescent beauty of Ursula Andress, SHE becomes a touchstone '60s genre film that falls just short of greatness.



Thursday, September 10, 2020

"WHEN THE MONSTER'S DEAD..."



The team of good guys is headed by genre stalwart Kenneth Tobey. He's aided by Jack Kruschen, Barney Phillips and William Schallert and others in their battle against the bad guys.

The bad guys are led by the bow tied, glasses wearing (and scenery chewing) Rod Steiger. The members of his team include the beautiful but deadly Angie Dickinson, Jack Klugman and the benny popping rapist Neville Brand.

In the middle are the innocent pawns James Mason and Inger Stevens.

With a cast like that, CRY TERROR! (1958), has to be good.

And it is.

Directed in a matter-of-fact, semi-documentary style in various New York area locations by Andrew Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay along with his wife, Virginia), CRY is a suspenseful crime thriller in which criminal mastermind Steiger plots to extort half a million dollars from an airline by threatening the use of explosive devices. Those devices were manufactured by Mason, who was duped by Steiger into believing they were for military use. 

  Once Steiger makes his initial demands, various law enforcement agencies spring into action in a race against time to find the gang without endangering the lives of Mason and Stevens (and their young daughter), who are being held hostage and forced to participate in the extortion scene.

Highlights of the film include a nail-biting sequence in a for real elevator shaft and a dangerous climax in a likewise real subway tunnel.

The cast is uniformly excellent but I couldn't help but laugh at Steiger a couple of times. What a ham he was! Mason is one of my favorite actors, Stevens and Dickinson are both lovely, Klugman is good as a bad guy and was there ever a better psycho thug (Stevens calls him a "degenerate") than Brand?

CRY TERROR! is a first rate albeit not widely know little thriller that is well worth seeing.

Thumbs up.



 

Monday, September 7, 2020

BANANAS


"You've heard it with your own eyes"

BANANAS (1971), Woody Allen's second film as writer, director and actor opens and closes with two bits of absolutely inspired insanity. In the opening, Allen stages an assassination in San Marcos, a small Latin America country, as an event worthy of coverage by ABC's WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. He has the legendary Howard Cosell provide the play by play and then, an interview with the dying dictator.

The gag is repeated at the end of the film but instead of an assassination, it's coverage of the wedding night of Fielding Mellish (Allen) and Nancy (Louise Lasser). Once again, Cosell is there in the couple's bedroom (along with rooting fans), to provide play by play and post coital interviews.

Those scenes are indicative of the type of madcap, scattershot humor that fills every frame of BANANAS. Allen and co-writer Mickey Rose, load the screenplay with sight gags, one liners, fake television commercials, film references and just plain craziness all punctuated by a bouncy Marvin Hamlisch score. If one joke doesn't land, don't worry, there's another one coming, and one after that, and one after that..

For me, all of the jokes land. I had seen Woody Allen's first feature film, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN when it was released in 1969 so when BANANAS came out a couple of years later, I was ready to see another film by the guy I thought was a comic genius. I believed that then and I believe it now.  

The story of a New York nebbish, Fielding Mellish, who inadvertently gets involved in a banana republic revolution for the sake of love, BANANAS is the kind of film that Allen would dismiss later in his career as being "one of his early, funny ones". It is that and even though I've seen the film several times over the years, I still laugh uproariously at most of the gags. Just ask Judy.

Originally intended as a vehicle for British actor Robert Morse, with Allen serving only as writer and director, the project was shelved when Morse reportedly read and hated the script. Following the tremendous success of TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, United Artist was quick to sign Allen to a contract and gave him the green light for BANANAS as a 100% Allen project.

A very young Sylvester Stallone appears, uncredited, as one of two subway thugs that Allen encounters early in the film.

BANANAS is a textbook laugh riot showing a young filmmaker learning and growing before our eyes, figuring out what works and what doesn't all while building one of the great bodies of cinematic comedy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Highly recommended.