Saturday, October 21, 2017

THE 39 STEPS


Back in the 1980s, I spent a great deal of money to purchase my first VCR. It was manufactured by JVC and it was a large block of a machine, a top loader with those oh-so-handy large colored buttons on the front. The player makes an appearance in the opening titles of ABC-TV's currently running sitcom THE GOLDBERGS (which Judy and I have watched since the first episode). Here's what it looked like.





Raise your hand if you remember it. After shelling out around $500 for the player, I immediately started acquiring classic movies on VHS. These too were not cheap as the market for actually owning movies in a permanent (ha!) format was just beginning to gain traction. Among the movies I bought on tape were several early Alfred Hitchcock films such as THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, SECRET AGENT, THE LADY VANISHES and THE 39 STEPS. These were all films he made in Great Britain prior to coming to the United States in 1940. At the time, it was the only way a film fanatic like myself could acquire and view these early classics but truth be told, the prints and transfers weren't the best with the resulting product being full of pops and hisses and a sub-standard picture quality. The films were most likely in the public domain at the time and not much care was given to making quality recordings. It wasn't great but it was all we had and besides, this was a technological achievement far beyond my wildest dreams. Imagine being able to own copies of classic movies forever and ever without having to stay up way past midnight to catch a heavily edited and commercial filled broadcast of the same material. This was nirvana. Sheer bliss, bad transfer and all.

Until the other day I had only ever seen THE 39 STEPS in this primitive format and that was some thirty-odd years ago. My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched the film in the Blu-Ray format on the Criterion label this week and I was absolutely blown away. Not only did this film look and sound fantastic, I had forgotten what a marvelously entertaining film it is, a visually sophisticated adventure that adroitly combines laughs and thrills with touches of many of Hitchcock's major thematic concerns, themes and motifs that would inform the vast body of his work for years to come.

By the time Hitchcock made THE 39 STEPS in 1935, he had already directed twenty silent and sound films in Great Britain, beginning with THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925). This makes STEPS the work of a veteran filmmaker who was already incredibly skilled and gifted and who, astonishingly enough, only got better over the course of his career. THE 39 STEPS plays heavily on the idea of an innocent man suddenly thrust into a mysterious world of danger and intrigue. The hero here is one Richard Hannay (the dashing Robert Donat), who is given a scrap of information from a dead female secret agent. With only a map and the words "the 39 steps" to go on, Hannay sets out to solve the mystery in a race against time to prevent something dreadful from happening. He is, of course, suspected of murdering the female spy and must first elude the police. As Hannay gets closer to the truth (even though he doesn't know it), he's also menaced by enemy agents.

Hannay eventually winds up in the company of the lovely Pamela Shaneakwa (Madeleine Carroll), a Hitchcock blonde whom Hannay first meets on a train early in the film. The two find themselves handcuffed together and running for their lives before finally discovering the truth about the 39 steps and foiling the plot.

The action in the film begins and ends in a theater (the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) also takes place in a theater). Hannay meets a variety of couples throughout his journey, some of them help him in his flight, while others stand in his way. It's only when the two singles, Hannay and Pamela become a trusting couple themselves that the day is saved. The 39 steps are a bit of a McGuffin, a plot device that drives the narrative without being the real truth of the matter. Hannay and Pamela's handcuffed escapades have an air of screwball comedy about them and the scene where Hannay gives a political speech full of double talk is genuinely funny.

But make no mistake about it, THE 39 STEPS is a flat out thriller from beginning to end. It's clearly a template for NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and while that film is, in my opinion, Hitchcock's most entertaining film, THE 39 STEPS is not far behind. If you're going to watch this one, it's worth the effort to track down the Blu Ray edition on the Criterion label. You won't be disappointed.

Highly recommended.

Friday, October 20, 2017

MONTANA BELLE


There's only one reason to watch MONTANA BELLE (1952), an utterly routine RKO western. And if you think the reason is either George Brent, Scott Brady or Forrest Tucker, you're really not paying attention.

The lovely Jane Russell, who is one of my all-time favorite Golden Age movie stars, headlines as notorious lady outlaw Belle Starr. She crosses paths with the infamous Dalton Gang, led by Bob Dalton (Brady), before forming her own outlaw band with Mac (Tucker) and Ringo (Jack Lambert). Belle gets in good with Tom Bradfield (Brent), the owner of the Birdcage saloon and casino. Belle becomes part owner with an eye towards eventually cleaning out the joint. But true love interferes and complicates Belle's plans.

There are a couple of unintentionally hilarious musical numbers in which Belle sings and struts through songs like she's in a 1950s nightclub rather than an Old West saloon. Her dresses are slit up to here, showing an awful lot of Miss Russell's lovely legs, her hand gestures are odd, the orchestration too full to be supplied by the bar room band and the lyrics distinctly modern. These two scenes are the highlights of the film.

MONTANA BELLE was shot in "Trucolor", RKO's color photography process. It's a faded, washed out color process which gives everything a pastel tint rather than the rich, super saturated color of Technicolor. The process reminds me of those ghastly colorized black and white films of the 1980s. I would have rather seen this film in black and white than this tepid color photography.

The supporting cast is full of players who appeared in dozens of films and television shows. Among them are Andy Devine as a peddler playing both ends against the middle, Ray (BONANZA) Teal as Emmett Dalton and Dick (Mayor Pike on the ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) Elliott as Jeptha Rideout.

MONTANA BELLE was directed by veteran director Allan Dwan, whose career began in the silent era. The screenplay by Horace McCoy and Norman S. Hall, pays absolutely no attention to the history of the real Belle Starr. As a western, MONTANA BELLE is strictly average. But for Russell fans like myself, it's a gold mine.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA


Filmed in five days , BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966) is a thoroughly craptastic waste of time. This western/horror hybrid has the production values of  GUNSMOKE (actually, GUNSMOKE looked better) combined with all of the sheer, naked horror of an episode of SCOOBY-DOO.

This cheap exploitation quickie was helmed by legendary director William "One Shot" Beaudine. Billy Beaudine got his start in the silent era and he was well known for knocking out films quickly, shooting the majority of scenes in one take. BILLY shows this admittedly efficient method of film making with all of the exterior shots taking place in the same location (the Corriganville Movie Ranch in California) and a handful of sets at Paramount Studios. Shoot the exteriors one day, all of the saloon scenes the next, all of the cave scenes on Wednesday, etc. Oh, that action sequence where a stagecoach is pursued by Indians on horseback? That's lifted from another movie.

The legend is that when the production would stop for lunch, star John Carradine would take his break at a bar down the street from the studio. He'd go in in full Dracula costume and make-up, belt down a few stiff drinks and return to the set for an afternoon's work. I suspect Beaudine tried to get the majority of Carradines' scenes shot before lunch.

BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA was shot at the same time and on the same sets and location as its' companion western/horror film JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER The shoot for both films lasted eight days. The two were released on a double bill. I haven't seen JESSE but after sitting through BILLY once, I'll pass.

You know a movie is bad when the only other recognizable name actor in the cast besides Carradine is Virgina (Mrs. Olsen!) Christine. Billy is played the incredibly stiff Chuck Courtney, while the object of Dracula's desire is Melinda Plowman, a cute blonde with girl-next-door appeal whose hair styles belong more to the 1960s than the 1860s. The script plays fast and loose (really, could it play any other way?) with established cinematic vampire lore with Dracula often appearing in broad daylight in several scenes.

The scariest thing about BILLY is this. John Carradine, who was pushing sixty at the time this film was made, lusts after a young woman who is stated to be all of eighteen-years-old in the script. Of course, actress Plowman is older than that but the sight of Carradine literally slobbering with lust and desire over a girl young enough to be his granddaughter is sad and repellent. I know, I know, he's supposed to be a vampire but let's face it, he's really just a creepy old man with a drinking problem.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT


Following upon the heels of the critical and commercial success of THE TIME MACHINE (1960), the powers-that-be at MGM desperately wanted producer/director George Pal to do another film as quickly as possible. Given enough time, a large enough budget and, most importantly, a decent script to work with, Pal could have produced a film comparable to THE TIME MACHINE. But Pal didn't have those three key ingredients at his disposal, which resulted in ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT, which is considered by many to be Pal's worst film as a director. Remember, he was only the producer of DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE.

ATLANTIS plays like any one of dozens of other low-budget sword and sandal films filling early '60s movie screens. It's colorful enough with some occasional flashes of imagination but it's also deadly dull with a cast of no-name actors (some of which are obviously dubbed despite this being an American production). There's decent miniature, model and matte work but the film relies heavily on lots of footage from bigger and better historical epic films (I'm looking at you QUO VADIS (1951)).

 Sal Ponti (aka Anthony Hall but a stiff by any name) stars as Demetrius, a Greek fisherman who rescues Atlantean princess Antillia (the lovely Joyce Taylor) from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea. They soon set sail for her home continent of Atlantis where Demetrius becomes a slave. He eventually leads a revolt of the imprisoned men from many other lands and destroys the entire continent in a spectacular climax. There's a sub-plot about turning men into animal-headed beasts (a steal from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)) that goes nowhere. The villains of the piece, Zaren (John Dall) and a mad surgeon (Berry Kroeger) are more than slightly effeminate and pose no real threat. You know a film's in trouble when Edward (GET SMART) Platt is the sole voice of reason in the story. Platt plays Azar, the High Priest, who has come to believe in the existence of one, true God rather than the many gods worshiped by the Atlanteans.

If you look quickly, you'll spot control panels from FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) in the background of a laboratory. Veteran voice actor Paul Frees does triple duty as the film's narrator and the speaking voices for Demetrius's father and King Cronus (Edgar Stehli). The giant crystalline death ray projector is a well-designed prop as is the fish-shaped submarine used by the Atlanteans. 





A note about that submarine. In January, 1994, I had the honor of visiting the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman at the fabled "Ackermansion" in Los Angeles. Along for the ride were my buddies Kelly Greene and Walter Hausner, along with "Kookie" Kent Deluga and a couple of other "monster kids" whose names I don't recall. Forry met us at the front gate of his house and led us down a narrow walkway along the side that ended on a small patio. There on the patio was the submarine pictured above, a full size prop about six feet in length if I recall correctly. Forry asked us if anyone could identify the film it was from and only one of us knew (sadly, it wasn't me). The submarine from ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT was the first piece of fantasy film memorabilia I saw (other than Forry himself) on that memorable day. I'll relate the full story of our visit to Forry's at a future date. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT is worth seeing by only the most devoted genre enthusiasts. Pal could and did make much better films than this one.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

CRACK IN THE WORLD


Let's get this out of the way right now. When CRACK IN THE WORLD was first released in February, 1965, I guarantee you that every boy in my third grade class at Bryker Woods Elementary School referred to this disaster epic as "Crack In My Ass". What do you want? We were nine-years-old.

How to solve the world's energy problems? How to tap into a near limitless source of free energy? Hey, how about all that magma floating around in the middle of the earth? Tap into that and we'd have free energy for years. Problem is, there's an immense barrier of rock between us and the magma which can't be penetrated by anything short of a nuclear bomb.

That's just what crack-pot scientist Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews), proposes to do. He wants to fire a missile with a nuclear warhead on the tip of it down a bore hole. The resulting explosion will bring magma to the surface and voila, free energy!

Sorenson is opposed in his mad scheme by his second-in-command at Project Inner Space, Ted Rampion (the square jawed Kieron Moore). Rampion warns of dire consequences if Sorenson's plan is put into motion but Sorenson sells an international scientific commission on the idea and proceeds with his plan. To make matters more interesting, Sorenson's lovely young wife Maggie (Janette Scott), used to be involved with Rampion and still harbors some feelings for him .

And if all of that wasn't enough to make the plot messy, Sorenson is suffering from a terminal disease. What disease? We don't know but it's pretty bad because Sorenson is forced to hold his hands between two plates that emit X-rays for minutes on end. Eventually he is forced to wear white gloves on both hands, truss one arm with a sling and wear dark glasses indoors and out. Yeah, that kind of disease. Truthfully, I suspect that Dana Andrews must have injured himself on the set while on a drinking binge and the screen writers (Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet), wrote his infirmities into the script.

Sorenson's experiment succeeds at first but quickly goes wrong when a crack is discovered in the crust of the earth. It's up to Rampion to drop a bomb down an active volcano in order to stop the spread of the crack. He succeeds and the world is saved. But wait, there's more. The crack is still growing, threatening to split the earth apart.

It's in the third act of the film that production designer Eugene Lourie gets a chance to show his stuff. Earlier scenes in the film used a lot of stock footage and a few matte paintings and miniature sets but it's in the big cataclysm at the end that we see some fairly decent effects work. Rampion and Maggie return to the Project Inner Space headquarters to rescue Sorenson. He refuses their help but before they can escape, they're trapped underground and forced to climb their way back to the surface through a ruined elevator shaft. The two emerge on the surface in time to witness a huge chunk of earth explode into space where it settles into orbit as Earth's second moon.

Wha........?

Set in Africa but filmed in Spain in seven weeks, CRACK IN THE WORLD is a modest disaster film that does the best it can with limited resources. The science is wonky but everything is played straight. The underground headquarters set is impressive, Lourie's effects work are adequate and the leads are solid. It's an entertaining B movie that pales in comparison to the slicker, bigger budgeted disaster films that came later in the decade and beyond.


Monday, October 16, 2017

7 FACES OF DR. LAO


I first discovered 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine, which is where I found out about a lot of 1960s era horror, fantasy and science fiction films. FACES looked incredibly weird, mysterious and appealing. I desperately wanted to see it but even though it played at the Austin Theater on South Congress (a venue that later, sadly, became a porno house), somehow I never got to see it. For years I had to make due with stills and various clips from the film until TCM ran the film a few years back. I watched it then and once again a couple of days ago.

7 FACES is a whimsical western-fantasy film that I suspect is much lighter than the original source material, the novel THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles G. Finney. I have not read the novel (I have a copy on my shelf) but the screenplay by noted mid-century American fantasist Charles Beaumont walks the fine line between the truly outre and something that's a bit more palatable and family friendly since, after all, FACES is a George Pal film.

Pal had a long and illustrious film career beginning as a special effects technician before moving into producing and directing live action feature films. Pal's work includes such genre touchstones as DESTINATION MOON (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1955), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT (1961), THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962), THE POWER (1968) and DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE (1975). WAR OF THE WORLDS and TIME MACHINE are arguably his best films but anything with Pal's name on it is worth seeing. Pal, along with Ray Harryhausen and, to a lesser extent, Irwin Allen, were all genre auteurs who could be counted on to deliver entertaining and imaginative films with good production values and special effects. In short, Pal's name on a film became a dependable "brand" for the cinema of the fantastic.

FACES takes place in Abalone, Arizona in the early years of the 20th century. Rich land baron Clinton Stark (Arthur O'Connell), makes a bid to buy up all of the property in the town. He's opposed by crusading newspaper publisher Edward Cunningham (John Ericson) and his assistant Sam (Noah Beery, Jr.). Into this small town turmoil rides the mysterious Dr. Lao (Tony Randall, who insists on pronouncing his name as "Lo"). Lao is an ancient Chinese wizard whose accent comes and goes. He advertises a mysterious circus on the outskirts of town, an attraction that draws the entire populace including attractive young widow Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden, who also appeared other genre films including VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961), THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962) and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)). 

Once inside the strange looking circus tent (which appears to be larger on the inside than from out), various townspeople confront different characters (all played by Randall), who reveal deep secrets and hidden truths about the men and women of Abalone. Among the characters in the circus are Merlin, the Great Magician, Pan, the God of Love, the Serpent, Medusa, Apollonius of Tyana, the blind fortune teller and the Abominable Snowman (who resembles a Morlock from Pal's TIME MACHINE). All of these characters are wonderfully depicted by Randall and makeup wizard William Tuttle (who received a special Academy Award for his work).

Stark's motivation for his attempted land grab is eventually revealed and thwarted in a climax that involves the Loch Ness Monster (a stop motion animation creature brought to life by Jim Danforth and Wah Chang). The town is saved, relationships are restored and renewed and Lao rides off into the sunset with young Mike (Kevin Tate), doing his best Brandon De Wilde imitation from SHANE (1953): "Dr. Lao, Dr. Lao, come back Dr. Lao!"

7 FACES OF DR. LAO belongs entirely to Tony Randall as he demonstrates his considerable acting chops portraying fantastic characters with humor and pathos. The role of Lao was originally going to go to British actor Peter Sellers before the powers-that-be at MGM stepped in and insisted upon Randall. The supporting cast is good, the production values solid and the special effects serviceable. FACES is a gentle, wistful fantasy film about finding the wonder in everyday life and is well worth seeing by both genre aficionados and those looking for a film that has something for viewers of all ages.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK


Pity poor Ross Martin. As one of the stars of Eugene Lourie's noir-tinged 1958 science fiction film, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, Martin has only about five minutes of screen time at the beginning of the film. For the rest of the picture, only his voice is heard. It's no wonder that he received fifth billing, even though his character, scientist Jeremy Spenser, is the focus of the narrative.

Jeremy, a brilliant young scientist and humanitarian, receives the "International Peace Prize" for his work at the beginning of the film. Returning to New York, he's tragically struck and killed by a truck while trying to retrieve his son Billy's (Charles Herbert), toy airplane. Jeremy's father, William (Otto Kruger), a skilled scientist himself, is determined to keep Jeremy's brain alive in order to benefit humanity. Jeremy was simply too great a genius to be lost to the world. William coerces his other son, Henry (John Baragrey) and Jeremy's friend, scientist Robert Carrington (Robert Hutton), to aid him in his quest to build a gigantic, robotic body in which to house Jeremy's brain.

The experiment works and everything looks good for awhile but you just know that things must go wrong eventually. Henry falls in love with Jeremy's widow, Anne (the very lovely Mala Powers) leading Jeremy to murder his brother in cold blood using heretofore unknown and unmentioned death rays from his eyes. Jeremy, now completely insane, decides to destroy humanity rather than work to save it and attacks a meeting at the United Nations where he slaughters several innocent people with his optical death rays. It's up to young Billy to throw the torso-mounted switch on the robot's body that will shut him off forever. And when the monster is dead, the movie is over. William, Anne and Robert somberly exit the United Nations with not a word said about the massacre which just took place and for which William and Robert share some degree of culpability.

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK isn't a great science fiction film. The screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Thelma Schnee, depends too heavily on other genre touchstones such as THE GOLEM (1920), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1953) to bring anything original or innovative to the formulaic proceedings. The cinematography is moody and atmospheric, lending a film noir atmosphere to some of the scenes, the design of Spenser's laboratory is unusual, the look of the robot, while visually striking, is enormously impractical (no attempt is made to hide the "screens" under the illuminated eyes which allowed stunt man Ed Wolff to see out of ) and the score, a solo piano arrangement by Van Cleave seems grossly out of place. It's far too jazzy and avant garde for such a pedestrian effort as this one.

The cast ranges from good to adequate. Martin is probably the best player here, despite his limited screen time. Otto Kruger is an actor that I've always found interesting and a pleasure to watch. Could be because he reminds me of our family physician from my childhood. Baragrey and Hutton are cliches, Mala Powers is fetching and young Charles Herbert is annoying. Director Eugene Lourie had a long career as both a production designer and director. As a genre director, he made the same film three times over beginning with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) and GORGO (1961). As a production designer, he worked on such varied fare as CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965), KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1969) (for he which he won an Oscar for Best Special Effects) and Clint Eastwood's BRONCO BILLY (1980).

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was shot in two weeks under the auspices of producer William Alland who served in the same capacity on THE SPACE CHILDREN the same year. Both films were released by Paramount on a double bill. If you're a fan of 1950s science ficiton films, you should see COLOSSUS once but there's nothing here to recommend to non-genre fans.



Friday, September 29, 2017

711 OCEAN DRIVE


Edmond O'Brien became a film noir icon thanks in large part to the work he did in a number of films over a span of ten years. Consider this noir filmography: THE KILLERS (1946), THE WEB (1947), AN ACT OF MURDER (1948), WHITE HEAT (1949), D.O.A. (1950), BACKFIRE (1950), BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950), TURNING POINT (1952), THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954) and A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956). It's generally acknowledged that the best of these films are WHITE HEAT and D.O.A. and I recently posted a very enthusiastic review of THE HITCH-HIKER here on the blog.

711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950) puts O'Brien front and center in this story of the rise and fall of a telephone company technician to mob boss. Mal Granger (O'Brien), is approached by local Los Angeles gangster Vince Walters (Barry Kelley) about using his technical expertise to get track results on a delayed basis. The operation runs smoothly and the money starts rolling in. But when Walters is killed by a desperate bookie, Granger steps in to fill the power vacuum, becoming an even bigger gangster than his late predecessor.

All of the west coast action attracts the attention of the LAPD "Gangster Squad", who begin an investigation and crack down of the operation. In addition, the east coast mob wants their piece of the action and two high ranking hoods are sent out west to put the squeeze on Granger. These two aren't the usual mob thugs. Larry Mason (Don Porter) and Carl Stephens (Otto Kruger)  appear to be smooth, dapper and urbane businessmen. But they project an air of unctuous menace and when Granger gets involved with Mason's wife Gail (the lovely Joanne Dru), sparks are sure to fly.

Granger pushes back, resulting in an attempt on his life by a hit man. Granger survives, kills the trigger man, establishes an alibi and goes on the run. With both cops and crooks on his tail, Granger and Gail head for Boulder Dam for the well-staged climax.

I can't tell you why this film is entitled 711 OCEAN DRIVE. That address is never given in the film. A big part of the promotional pitch for 711 was the claim that many scenes were shot on location and required extensive protection from the LAPD for fear that the real local mob would protest and possibly retaliate. I think that's pretty much total hokum but it's a good sales gimmick nonetheless.

 O'Brien is the star here and he does a great job as a man who climbs the ladder of crime one vicious rung at a time. He's aided by a top notch supporting cast, a killer wardrobe, a sturdy screenplay by Richard English and Francis Swann, sharp cinematography by Franz Planer and assured direction by Joseph M. Newman, who would go on to direct the science fiction classic THIS ISLAND EARTH in 1955.

Recommended.



Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DEAD MEN WALK


DEAD MEN WALK looks like it was shot before lunch on a random Tuesday in early 1943. This PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) bargain basement quickie was actually shot in six days, not that the extra time spent on the project made any difference in the final product.

This is what is euphemistically known as a Poverty Row horror film and it serves a vital function for horror film aficionados like myself. While enduring all 64 minutes of its' running time, I was reminded that this film (and others like it), make even the worst Universal horror film of the period look like a masterpiece. As it just so happened, Universal released FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN that same year and while FMWM is a lower tier effort, it has far more going for it than this picture.

The producer, Sam Neufeld, was working on a budget so small that he was forced to use the same actor, horror icon George Zucco, in two roles as brothers, one of whom is a vampire. But he's a cheap vampire with no fangs and is-that-a-cape-or-a-bad-suit attire. Zucco, who made an astonishing 96 films between 1931 and 1951, many of them horror pictures, does his best with the tepid material provided by screenwriter Fred Myton but there's not much here. All of the murders take place off screen, there's no blood, and the crypt set leaves much to be desired. Like imagination.

The cinematography by Jack Greenhalgh is murky and fuzzy throughout. It's as if Greehalgh didn't understand the difference between lighting for mood and atmosphere and just plain bad lighting which keeps characters faces in near total darkness in several scenes. The sound is awful too. Some of the dialogue is impossible to hear and the volume fluctuates throughout the film.

I'm not entirely sure that "editor" Holbrook Todd really deserves any credit on this film. He repeatedly lets scenes play out in long medium shots, rarely cutting to close ups. It's like they only had so many feet of film to shoot and couldn't afford to waste any celluloid by shooting coverage or additional takes. And the music by Leo Erdody, is horrible. It doesn't match the action or the mood of the scenes, sounding like generic "horror" movie music that may have indeed been lifted from a music library of stock cues.

The best thing about this film is the appearance of Dwight Frye as Vampire Zucco's hunchbacked assistant Zolarr. Frye was a busy man in 1943. He made five films that year before passing away on November 7th. Frye, who became a horror film immortal with his back-to-back appearances in DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931), was always fun to watch. He always gave a hundred percent and got the most out of even the smallest role. No actor of his generation could wring such desperation out of the delivery of the single word "master".

DEAD MEN WALK is like one of those cheap-jack black and white horror comic magazines I used to see on the stands of my youth. The artwork and stories were always far beneath the material found in the first rate Warren magazines CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA. You can watch DEAD MEN WALK and buy a gonzo horror mag or you can buy an issue of CREEPY and curl up with a Universal classic. The choice is yours.

Guess what I'm gonna do.

Monday, September 25, 2017

42 DAYS FOR MURDER


Originally published in 1938, 42 DAYS FOR MURDER was the only novel prolific pulp wordsmith Roger Torrey wrote during his long career. He was a regular contributor to the venerable BLACK MASK magazine, as well as other detective/crime/mystery oriented pulps. The edition pictured above, which I finished reading over the weekend, was published in 2012 by Pulpville Press.

42 DAYS is an utterly routine detective novel. The hero is Shean Connell, a generic tough talking, two-fisted private detective on a case in Reno, Nevada. His client's wife wants a divorce but refuses to see or speak to her soon to be ex husband. Connell, along with his junior G-Man partner Lester (who owns a piece of the detective agency), travel to the wicked city to investigate. There they find floozies and b-girls, crooked cops, good cops, low-level gangsters, a powerful lawyer who runs the town, white slavery, dope and murder. The plot doesn't hold up on close inspection but Torrey keeps things moving at such a fast clip that you barely have time to notice.

One thing that stands out (and in a bad way), is the way some words are spelled. I've never seen "Sean" spelled "Shean" and Torrey consistently uses "okey" for "okay". There are other typos and misspellings. I suspect the original text contained some of these errors while Pulpville Press may have contributed some new boo-boos when the company typeset what is clearly a public domain story.

If 42 DAYS had been made into a film in 1938, it would have been produced by Monogram (or another poverty row studio), a cheap programmer shot on a minuscule budget and schedule with a running time of just barely an hour, designed to be released on the lower half of a double bill. That should give you some idea of what to expect with this one.

Friday, September 22, 2017

WILD TOWN


Jim Thompson throws a wicked plot curve in WILD TOWN, his 1957 West Texas noir featuring Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, who stars in Thompson's deeply disturbing portrait of a psycho, THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952).

Thompson sets everything in WILD TOWN up like a classic noir and you think you have everything figured out, you know where this one's going because, hey, you've read other books like this and seen dozens of films noir. The main character here is Bugs McKenna, an ex-con with a checkered past when it comes to steady employment. Bugs isn't the sharpest tool in the shed but he wants to get a decent job, settle down and try to put the mistakes of his past behind him. When he hits the West Texas oil boom town affectionately know as "Ragtown", he's confronted by Lou Ford who, rather than run the ex con out of town, sets Bugs up with a job as a house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

The hotel, like almost everything else in Ragtown, is owned by Mike Hanlon, a crippled older man who lives on the top floor of the hotel with a much younger hot-to-trot wife. You get the picture pretty quick. Ford is setting up Bugs to kill Hanlon so the corrupt lawman can run away with Mrs. Hanlon. But Thompson starts peppering the plot with unexpected curve balls.

Ford offers up his girlfriend, Amy, to Bugs, a proposition that Bugs readily accepts. Bugs also beds both Mrs. Hanlon and Rosalie Vara, a hotel maid who, although black, is passing for white. The hotel manager discovers a discrepancy in the books. There's $5,000 in cash missing and suspicion falls upon the outside auditor hired for the job. The auditor dies while in the presence of Bugs, but Bugs is innocent of the crime.

 Money, money, who's got the money? You can forget that narrative thread. It's a pure McGuffin that Thompson brushes off rather off-handedly in one short chapter. Okay, so now Bugs must proceed with the plan to kill Hanlon, right?

To say anything else will spoil the surprises in store in the final chapters of the book. Suffice it to say that some characters' motives aren't as clear as they appeared to be at first and what started out as a set-up-a-patsy-for-a-kill thriller unexpectedly turns into something else entirely. It's as if Thompson started out to write one kind of story and changed his mind half way through, taking things in a completely different direction.

Authors are entitled to do that and despite the twists, WILD TOWN is still a first rate noir thriller. I do have one problem though. Lou Ford, who was absolutely reprehensible in THE KILLER INSIDE ME, is a bit more sympathetic here. He's still a shit heel but he comes through in a surprising way in the end. It's a niggling little bit of inconsistent characterization but I suspect that when Thompson wrote WILD TOWN in 1957, he didn't imagine that many readers of pulp paperback crime novels would recall a character from a book written five years previously.

Highly recommended.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

NICK CARTER


Picked this beauty up at half price at the Austin Books Side Kick store back in August. 144 pages of glorious pulp adventure fun for only $7.50. How could I go wrong? Like they say on AMERICAN PICKERS, they made me buy it.

Earlier this year I read a couple of Nick Carter paperback novels. One, SAIGON, was from the 1960s, the other, SAMURAI KILL, was from the 1980s. Carter was not only the eponymous hero of these books, he was also the "author". Nick Carter, a venerable pulp hero who dates back to the 19th century, was updated and modernized as a super spy for the late twentieth century, a sort of American James Bond whose adventures were written by a variety of pulpsters all working under the house name "Nick Carter."

The pulp facsimile featured above (which I finished reading the other evening), contains Carter stories from two different eras of his long and checkered career. The first three stories comprise one long Nick Carter adventure but are written so that each installment can also stand alone. They are DR. QUARTZ RETURNS from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE December 11th, 1926, NICK CARTER CORNERS DR. QUARTZ from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE December 25th, 1926 and NICK CARTER'S DANGER TRAIL from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE January 22nd, 1927. Carter and his arch foe, Dr. Quartz, recall the relationship between another super-sleuth, Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. But Carter and Quartz first meeting was published in 1891, which pre-dates Holmes and Moriarty's first battle, published in 1893. It's an interesting comparison but an unfair one to be frank because even when handled by the best writers, Nick Carter and Dr. Quartz aren't as mythic, legendary and iconic as Holmes and the Napoleon of Crime.

But Nick's duel to the death with the master villain, as told by ZORRO creator Johnston McCulley, is nonetheless great fun to read as Carter matches wits with the fiend, encountering a series of death traps and narrow escapes over the course of the three episodes.

In the 1930s, after both The Shadow and Doc Savage took off and began receiving astonishing sales and popular acclaim,  the race was on to create other pulp magazines starring larger than life heroes and villains. Street & Smith, the publishers of the earlier DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE title, decided to dust off Nick Carter and launch a new magazine carrying his name. This iteration of Nick Carter was a two-fisted, hard-boiled detective who fights crime with the aide of his adopted son, Chick Carter and his friend, Patsy Garvan (who, despite the name, is a man).

 In THE WAR MAKERS, originally published in April, 1936, an international spy ring steals a death ray from its' inventor, Dr. Fraile. Fraile and his comely young daughter are also taken captive by the gang which plans to sell the death ray to the insurgent nation of Emporia, which will then use the weapon in an attack on the United States. Nick Carter, aided by newspaper reporter Jack Duane, are hot on the trail of the espionage gang, whose mastermind is the mysterious, masked "Mr. B". The action is fast and furious with plenty of gun battles to spice things up. THE WAR MAKERS reads more like a Doc Savage novel than your typical detective thriller but Carter lacks the extraordinary physical and mental abilities of Doc and he does not have any of Doc's remarkable gadgets. But he has two blazing hand guns, a sharp mind and an indomitable will, all of which is more than enough to save the day.

I loved reading these Nick Carter yarns. They're all fast paced and fun with colorful villains and a tough, square-jawed hero who always wins. Thumbs up.



Saturday, September 16, 2017

SAVAGE NIGHT


"Yes, there is a hell, my boy, and you do not have to dig for it..."

I watched THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010) the other night. It's a terrific little film noir based on the novel of the same name by Jim Thompson. I'll try and post a review of the film at a later date but suffice it to say that after watching the movie, I was in the mood to read some more of Thompson's work.

I have previously read and enjoyed THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952), AFTER DARK, MY SWEET (1955), THE GETAWAY (1958) and THE GRIFTERS (1963). I had copies of WILD TOWN (1957) and SAVAGE NIGHT (1953) on my shelves and I've now read both. Again, I'll write about WILD TOWN in a separate post, but here, I want to address SAVAGE NIGHT.

SPOILER WARNING: It's going to be tough to write about this book without giving some major plot points away so don't say I didn't warn you.

SAVAGE NIGHT is told in first person narration but one Carl Bigelow, which is not his real name. He's a short in stature (five foot tall) young man whose diminutive size and boyish good looks, make him appear much younger than he really is. Bigelow is, in reality, "Little" Charlie Bigger, a cold blooded, psychopathic murderer who has been sent to the small town of Peardale, New York to kill someone. Bigelow has been given his orders by the mysterious New York City crime lord known only as "The Man". Bigelow's target is Jake Winroy, a broken down alcoholic with ties to organized crime who is set to testify in an upcoming trial.

Bigelow's cover story for being in the town is his enrollment as a student at a small teacher's college. He rents a room in the Winroy house where he meets Fay Winroy, Jake's hot-to-trot wife, Mr. Kendall, a kindly older man who takes a keen interest in helping Bigelow and Ruthie, an attractive young woman with one leg who works as the Winroy's maid.

Before you know it, Bigelow beds both Ruthie and Fay. He has real feelings for the crippled young woman while Fay becomes his accomplice in his plan to murder her husband. Kendall gets Bigelow a job at a bakery and shows him the ropes at the college.

It all seems like a simple enough set-up. All Bigelow has to do is bide his time and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike but this being a Jim Thompson novel, there's nothing simple going on here at all. Bigelow is suffering from tuberculosis and it's only a matter of time until the consumptive disease claims him. The local sheriff has his suspicions about Bigelow while Bigelow is convinced that someone in the Winroy household is also under the control of The Man.

Things come to a quick and violent end in the last chapters of the book. Winroy is killed (but not by Bigelow). His killer is the last person you would expect and Bigelow and the killer escape into the country where they hole up in the deserted cabin of a writer that Bigelow once met. And it's here that things get really, really weird.

Not that things haven't already been slightly off kilter from the git-go. After all, this perverse, hard boiled thriller of broken people, murder and betrayal is already weird enough. All of Thompson's novels take place in a universe of existential dread and suffocating doom. But this ending, much like the final chapter of THE GETAWAY, is truly bizarre. You'll have to read it for yourself to find out what goes on but I'll give you this much:

It has something to do with goats.

SAVAGE NIGHT is a penetrating look into the psyche of a killer who is teetering on the brink of oblivion. It's raw, tough stuff, told by a writer who brought a singular vision, narrative style and twisted thematic concerns to everything he wrote.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

CAPTAIN SINDBAD


Guy Williams, bless him, was a great Zorro and a very good Dr. John Robinson but he was no Kerwin Mathews when it comes to portraying the legendary Arabian swashbuckling adventurer Sinbad the Sailor. Still actors have to eat and one can only hope that he was well paid and that he enjoyed his time in West Germany making CAPTAIN SINDBAD in 1962 (released in 1963).

Williams found tremendous success playing Zorro on the Walt Disney produced television series which ran from 1957 to 1959 and again in 1960-1961. Following Zorro, Williams went to Europe where he made CAPTAIN SINDBAD and DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962). He returned to the states to appear in five episodes of BONANZA in 1964 before striking gold once again with LOST IN SPACE (1965-1968).

And, just as Williams wasn't as good a Sinbad as Mathews was in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), nothing about CAPTAIN SINDBAD, earnest as it may be, can compare to Ray Harryhausen's fantasy masterpiece. The special effects are poorly mounted string puppets (with strings visible in several shots) rather than Harryhausen's breathtaking stop motion animation. A miniature set of rocky islands reveals that the "rocks" are an unpainted white below the water line and blurry matte lines are visible in several shots.

The score, by Michel Michelet, pales in comparison to Bernard Herrmann's magnificent work. The music is punctuated occasionally by sound effects that appear to be lifted straight from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Director Byron Haskin did much better work with producer George Pal on such genre touchstones as WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955), and THE POWER (1968). Haskin also directed FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), and the much loved ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) , in addition to six episodes of the classic science fiction television series THE OUTER LIMITS (1963-1965).

Despite being set in the middle eastern kingdom of Baristan, there are no Arab actors in the film. The men of Sindbad's crew are all white guys except for one African American character, Quinius (Bernie Hamilton), who for some inexplicable reason, cannot speak. El Kerim, the villain of the piece, is capably played by Pedro Armendariz, who was born in Mexico and who appeared as Kerim Bey in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963).

So, is there anything good to be said about this film? Yes there is. Heidi Bruhl is lovely as Princess Jana, the cinematography by Gunter Senftleben and Eugen Schufftan is colorful, lush and vivid. By the way, Schufftan had a long career as a cinematographer. He shot Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS in 1927, EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)  and won an Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography for THE HUSTLER (1961). According to the movie poster, CAPTAIN SINDBAD was shot in "Wondra-Scope" but I have no idea what the hell that means. The film was edited by, believe it or not, future Oscar winning director Hal Ashby (working as an assistant editor under the name Wm. Hal Ashby). The costumes are lavish, the sets well designed and the film really isn't a bad way to kill 85 minutes.

There was a Gold Key movie comic of the film featuring color photos on the cover and interior art by the great Russ Manning. I have a copy of it in my collection.


The problem is that the film can't help but suffer in comparison to Harryhausen's far superior cinematic Sindbad adventure. If I had seen CAPTAIN SINDBAD as a kid when it was first released in 1963, I'm sure I would have loved it but it failed to ignite a spark of wonder in me in 2017.

For hard core genre fans only.



Saturday, September 9, 2017

THE HITCH-HIKER


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) years ago and loved it. I watched it again yesterday and my admiration for this film went up a notch. It's a classic little film noir with a simple, straightforward story.

Emmett Myers (William Talman), is a hitch-hiking serial killer, a droop-eyed demon thumbing a ride to hell across the American Southwest. He kills three people during the opening credit sequences, cleverly staged scenes in which we see only the killers' legs from the knees down. Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are two buddies on their way to a fishing trip in the town of San Felipe on the Gulf of California. But they change their minds, go to Mexicali and then into Mexico where they encounter Myers, an innocent appearing motorist in need of gas. They pick him up and the terror begins.

Myers needs the two men, their car, gear and supplies to make it to Santa Rosalia on the gulf coast. From there, he can catch a ferry across the gulf and escape into the heart of Mexico. The three men play an increasingly dangerous series of mind games as they travel through the desolate desert. Collins and Bowen are constantly trying to devise a way to escape but Myers is always one step ahead of them. The Mexican police, working with U.S. agents, broadcast false information on the radio, making Myers think he's not being pursued. Eventually their car breaks down, leaving the three men to walk to Santa Rosalia where freedom waits for Myers and death for Collins and Bowen.

THE HITCH-HIKER is told with remarkable efficiency and economy by director Ida Lupino who doesn't waste a single moment of the films' 71 minutes of running time. It's a textbook example of how to get the most out of a low budget and short shooting schedule with every shot and set-up in service to the story. It's a bravura job of film making, the only American film noir of the classic period to be directed by a woman.

Lupino, while primarily known as an actress, had a long career behind the camera as well. She directed six feature films beginning with NEVER FEAR (1949) and ending with THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966). Lupino also worked in television directing episodes of such classic series as ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THRILLER, HONEY WEST, THE RIFLEMAN, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and THE FUGITIVE, among others.

In addition to Lupino's masterful direction, THE HITCH-HIKER benefits from a taut screenplay by Lupino and Collier Young, terrific on-location cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca and solid performances by the three main stars. Talman, who would go on to play long suffering District Attorney Hamilton Burger on television's PERRY MASON, is a stand out. He conveys an air of palpable menace, a stone-cold psycho killer who will casually murder anyone who gets in his way.

THE HITCH-HIKER is a first rate film noir that every fan of the genre should see. Even if you're not a noir-head, you'll like this one. Highly recommended.


Friday, September 8, 2017

3 DAY TERROR


Everything about the way 3 DAY TERROR (1957) is packaged sets up certain expectations in the minds of potential readers. For one thing, there's the vertical "CRIME" logo at the top of the cover, adjacent to the "Prologue Books Presents" banner. The cover blurb sets up a mysterious stranger in a small town where something bad is destined to take place. The back cover, which prints a portion of the text, describes an encounter between a young woman and a man that is fraught with tension and peril. Hell, even the title itself, 3 DAY TERROR, is appropriately lurid and suggestive, promising danger over a short span of time. You'd have every right to expect some kind of standard mystery thriller in which a stranger, possibly a killer, comes to a small town and wreaks havoc over a weekend.

And you'd be wrong. Dead wrong.

3 DAY TERROR isn't a crime novel by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a mystery. It is an exercise in suspense however along with a weird mash-ups of genres. It's PEYTON PLACE meets MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a Douglas Sirk film with a screenplay by Sam Fuller. It's gripping, compelling and powerful.

Bastrop, Alabama, is a small town whose one public school is about to be integrated by rule of law on a Monday morning. The narrative begins on a Friday evening and runs through that fateful Monday. Some of the townspeople support the integration, some with grudging respect for the law, while others are steadfastly against it and will do anything to stop it. The racist townspeople are stirred up by Richard Buddy, a Northerner seething with racial hatred who has come to Bastrop on his own to rally the townsfolk against integration. Buddy's thoughts, words and deeds (including a vile, racist pamphlet that he distributes), are full of raw, naked hate.

Into this potent, simmering boil, a situation ripe for exploitation, comes Delia Benjamin, a local woman who unexpectedly left the town and her jilted beau, local newspaper editor/publisher Jack Chadwick, several years prior for a husband in New York City.  Delia hits town at the same time as Richard Buddy and it's inevitable that their paths will cross several time during the course of the story. Delia's return to Bastrop opens up a number of old wounds in relationships, some of which can be repaired, while others can't.

Everything comes to a head on that Monday morning and while the school does peacefully integrate, two people end up dead by the end of the book.

3 DAY TERROR was written by Vin Packer, a pen name for author Marijane Meaker. As Packer, Meaker wrote 20 crime/mystery novels between 1952 and 1969. Originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal as a paperback original in 1957, 3 DAY TERROR paints a vivid portrait of small town America undergoing a seismic upheaval and the fallout that such an event causes in various lives.

 The characters are all well drawn and surprisingly sympathetic. Even the worst of the racist characters are given grounding and motivation for their thoughts and beliefs. There are no real heroes or villains here, just real people struggling with enormous problems, trying to keep their lives on an even keel. The language is extremely harsh and Packer pulls no punches in her depictions of the small minded vermin who consider the African American citizens of Bastrop as sub-human "apes." It's raw stuff but it's extremely well written and Packer knows how to keep a reader turning pages.

3 DAY TERROR masterfully subverts your expectations by setting you up for one thing and then delivering something entirely different. Thumbs up.



Monday, September 4, 2017

WESTWORLD


TCM ran this one the other day. I hadn't seen it in several years so I recorded it and watched it yesterday evening. I well remember when this film was released in 1973. It played at the grand old Americana Theater (now a public library) in Austin and I couldn't wait to see it. In 1973, any science fiction film was cause for celebration and anticipation. Some of the films actually lived up to expectations. Many did not. But as a die hard genre fan, I tried to see as many science fiction/fantasy/horror films as came my way in the early '70s.

WESTWORLD was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton. He'd already had two of his books adapted for the screen: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), and THE CAREY TREATMENT (1972, based on the book A CASE OF NEED). WESTWORLD was entirely Crichton's baby and for a rookie writer/director, it's an admirable effort.

You know the story. Two men, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), come to Delos, a futuristic adult-oriented amusement park, for a vacation. Delos is divided into three "worlds": Westworld, Romanworld and Medievalworld. Each "world" is populated by incredibly life-like robots that interact with the vacationers in extremely realistic ways. Peter and John opt for Westworld and, dressed like movie cowboys, they enjoy life in the old west, which includes a saloon brawl and sex with robot prostitutes. Oh, and gunfights with a black-clad gunfighter (Yul Brynner, channeling his character from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)), who bleeds real blood when shot. After each gun down, the gunslinger is repaired and sent back into action.

Of course, as you can tell by looking at the poster, something goes "worng". The robots malfunction on a widespread basis and begin killing the guests. John is gunned down by the gunslinger who then begins chasing Peter. The robot has a bit of the Terminator in him as he survives an acid bath and being set ablaze and he just keeps coming and coming and coming....

WESTWORLD shows Crichton flexing his creative muscles and riffing on the thematic concern of a high tech wonderland going horribly wrong, an idea that would eventually result in JURASSIC PARK. Crichton does a decent job with a story is basically all high concept with little in the way of character development or back story. Here's Crichton's elevator pitch: There is an amusement park populated by life-like robots that break down and start killing people.

The film, produced by MGM, has very good production values and Crichton keeps things moving at a good clip. There's a couple of expository, set-up scenes at the beginning of the film and then the action starts. The score by Fred Karlin, utilizes a recurring mechanical "stuttering" motif which sounds remarkably like a 1970s era computer breaking down.

WESTWORLD was cover featured in FAMOUS MONSTERS #107, which was published in May 1974. FUTUREWORLD, a sequel which Crichton had nothing to do with, followed in 1976, along with a very short lived television series BEYOND WESTWORLD in 1980. The HBO series debuted in 2016 but, since I don't have HBO, I have not seen it and cannot comment on it.

WESTWORLD is an enjoyable little exercise in "what if?" It holds up reasonably well and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane. Thumbs up.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

ATRAGON


I watched ATRAGON (1963) for the first time yesterday afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed every insane minute of it. It's an incredibly ambitious Japanese pulp science fiction film which features a lost, undersea civilization, super submarines, a sea serpent and a battle for the fate of the world.

Mu was a gigantic landmass/empire located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago. The continent sank but enough people survived to establish an undersea/underground city. Years later, Mu decides to attack the surface world and conquer the planet. They use warriors in weird diving suits that allow the wearers to turn to steam and back (don't ask) and an immense submarine fitted out with a dragon shaped cannon that spews a deadly heat ray. Various major cities of the world experience total destruction (told in newspaper headlines but not actually seen on screen), including an attack on Tokyo.

Japanese officials discover that Mu is in possession of a WWII era Japanese submarine, presumed lost at the end of the war. The sub was commanded by Captain Jinguji, who, in the years since the war, has constructed the battle sub Atragon. Only Atragon can combat the threat of the Muvians and the battle is on.

Atragon is an immense, blimp shaped and sized vessel that, in addition to traveling underwater at high speeds, can also fly (shades of Supercar!). The craft fires a freezing cold ray from a nosecone mounted cannon and can dig through solid bedrock thanks to the giant drill bit that serves as the prow of the craft (reminiscent of The Mole vehicle used by Cave Carson in DC comics). It's a fantastic vehicle and is justifiably the center piece of the film.

The Mu base is protected by a giant sea serpent, Manda, which Atragon meets in a struggle to the death. In the impressive climax, Atragon breaks into the Mu power center, six miles below ground where shock troops dressed in white and carrying freeze guns (Imperial Storm Troopers anyone?) battle Mu warriors and plant destructive charges. Everything ends with a bang and the possibility of another adventure of Atragon to come.

ATRAGON benefits greatly from a screenplay that contains very little comic relief, as can be found in many other Japanese science fiction films. Everything is played straight and the menace posed by Mu is a very real one. The production design, model work, special effects (the underwater sequences are filmed dry for wet) are all very impressive and effective. The score by Akira Ifukube is reminiscent of earlier work on GOJIRA (1954). Ultimate credit for the success of ATRAGON must go to director Ishiro Honda, the auteur of Japanese sf/fantasy cinema. He delivers a thrilling, colorful, imaginative and extremely satisfying adventure film.

Highly recommended.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

DRAGON WARS


Yesterday, while Hurricane Harvey, a natural disaster, was dumping endless rounds of high winds and torrential rainfall outside of my home in Manor, I curled up inside to watch a different kind of disaster, this one man-made.

If you're looking for a script that makes any sense whatsoever, a coherent plot, the barest semblance of continuity, smooth editing and scene transitions, fully developed characters, and well crafted dialogue, well, move along kids, there's nothing to see here.

But if you want an absolutely bat-shit crazy sf/fantasy CGI fest of dragons and destruction, you've come to the right place. Check all (and I do mean ALL) of your critical facilities at the door before you start watching DRAGON WARS (2007), an over the top spectacle of storytelling insanity that, with one viewing, has just become my number one guilty pleasure for the year so far.

The most expensive movie ever made in South Korea, DRAGON WARS is the brainchild of writer/director Shim Hyung-rae. I have no knowledge of the Korean film industry so I don't know if Shim is a respected genre auteur or if this is an insanely ambitious freshman effort. Whatever the circumstances, he's earned my respect for having the balls to try something this crazy.

The plot really doesn't yield itself to a synopsis because, frankly, it doesn't make any sense. Using flashbacks within flashbacks at the beginning of the film, we learn about two ancient dragon entities that date back to 1507. One is a bad dragon, of course, while the other is a good one. The good dragon resides in the soul of a young woman with a dragon tattoo (yes, she's LITERALLY the girl with a dragon tattoo). When said woman turns 20, she will die and the dragon will be released. Or something like that. The young woman is guarded by a prince and they are both reincarnated through the ages until they end up in present day Los Angeles where they are both embodied by beautiful young Caucasian actors Ethan (Jason Behr) and Sarah (Amanda Brooks). It's never explained why the characters aren't played by Asian actors but again, don't think about it. All of this back story is explained to Ethan by Jack (Robert Forster, another Caucasian actor), who is the embodiment of an ancient wizard.

The evil wizard in charge of the bad dragon  appears in L.A.  He brings an army of flying dragons, dinosaur-riding shock troops, immense prehistoric beasts with cannons mounted on their backs and an army of silver and black armored warriors. Oh, and he sends the bad dragon (a really, really big snake) to look for Sarah. It's a race against time as Ethan must first find Sarah himself and then protect her (as is his destiny) from the bad guys.

The shit hits the fan in a spectacularly imagined battle sequence that is the set piece of the film. Ground troops march along the streets of downtown Los Angles while in the skies above, military helicopters stage breathtaking dog fights with flying dragons. Cars are tossed around like toys, buildings sustain heavy damage, people run and scream through the streets and the bad dragon wraps itself around a skyscraper. It's insane, over-the-top and wildly entertaining. The CGI effects range from dodgy to really pretty good and the whole sequence plays like a mash-up of the best Godzilla movie you've ever seen meets THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

The climax of the film appears to take place in another dimension (again, it's never explained) that looks like a cross between H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. There, the two dragons do battle for the last time and the film comes to a predictable conclusion.

Made over the course of several years and with an enormous budget, DRAGON WARS is nevertheless a B-movie from start to finish. It's a perfect Saturday afternoon matinee movie. Don't think about any of the plot holes and forget the fact that the entire script is about as solid as a loaf of bread. Sit back, relax and enjoy the bat shit craziness that is DRAGON WARS.

It's craptastic but I loved every minute of it.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

ALL MONSTERS ATTACK


Gotta confess, watching a good Godzilla movie on a late summer Saturday afternoon is one of my guilty pleasures. Too bad ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (1969), isn't a good Godzilla movie.

I've had this one on my shelf for awhile. I decided to give it a shot last week and while I was sorry I'd wasted time on this nonsense, I did score a good unscheduled nap out of it. Released in the U.S. as GODZILLA'S REVENGE, AMM sets up a premise, based on the title and the one sheet, that the screenplay doesn't deliver. Instead of Godzilla and various kaiju attacking Tokyo or some other Japanese city, the big guy and his friends and foes all live on the mythical "Monster Island", a location reached only in the dreams of the kid protagonist Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki). The youngster is a latch key kid who is bullied by some of his fellow school mates. When he visits Monster Island in his fantasies, he learns how to stand up to bullies, skills which he puts to good use back in reality when he confronts two bumbling bank robbers.

The absurdity factor in the Godzilla and other kaiju films produced by Toho Studios in the 1960s was already fairly high but I've always been willing to engage in a willful suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the films. But ALL MONSTERS ATTACK represents the point at which the entire genre jumped the shark. It's unabashedly a kids;' film, with a child protagonist and a child like monster, Minilla, as his companion. Al of the monster fights look like just what they are: wrestling matches between men in not-at-all convincing rubber monster suits.

 I suppose a 61 year old man really has no business even watching something like ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, much less criticizing it but it's amazing to see how much the Godzilla film franchise had changed since the release of the original masterpiece GOJIRO in 1954. In fifteen years, Godzilla went from a terrifying metaphor for nuclear war to a big, friendly, green giant. It would be several years before the monster regained his original city stomping, atomic fire breathing cred.


Friday, August 25, 2017

THE WITCHES


What a way to end a career. THE WITCHES (1966), a hot mess of a Hammer horror film, was the last film role for Academy Award winning actress Joan Fontaine. But the film wasn't her first foray into the realm of the cinefantastique. Fontaine co-starred in Irwin Allen's feature film VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA in 1961. But only genre fans like me (and my buddy Kelly Greene, with whom I recently watched THE WITCHES), remember her for these efforts. All other film fans will recall her appearances in two superb Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, REBECCA (1940), which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination and SUSPICION (1941), for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.

THE WITCHES (released in the U.K. as THE DEVIL'S OWN), is a muddled horror film from the get go. Fontaine stars as English school teacher Gwen Mayfield who is involved in a violent native upraising at a mission school in colonial Africa at the beginning of the film. The uprising carries a strong whiff of voodoo and black magic and Gwen suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of the events.

When she recovers, she's hired as a teacher in the small British village of Heddaby, where strange things begin happening almost immediately. At about the half way point of the film's 90 minute running time, she's "Scooby-Dooed" by a fake voodoo attack which causes her to experience a relapse which lands her in a nursing home, sans memory. Her memory slowly returns, she escapes and returns to Heddaby where she discovers the truth about what's really going on.

What's really going on is a coven of witches led by Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), who wants to sacrifice young virgin Linda Rigg (Ingrid Brett) to Satan himself. Bax lets Gwen in on the mad scheme, which Gwen, of course, eventually upsets, destroying the cult and saving Linda.

The sceenplay by Peter Curtis (based on the book THE DEVIL'S OWN), makes no sense whatsoever. A teacher suffers a nervous breakdown due to exposure to witch craft. She's hired in a village where witchcraft is practiced. The practitioners of witchcraft fake a voodoo attack, causing a relapse and confinement for the teacher. The teacher recovers, escapes, returns to the village where the main villain tells her everything that's going on and gives the teacher the information needed to thwart the scheme. The end.

There's no suspense, no tension, no horror to speak of at all. Cyril Frankel's direction is slow and plodding and it takes forever for what passes as a story to develop. Fontaine looks lost amidst all of the hugger-mugger taking place around her. You can almost see her thinking, "if this is the best part I can get now, maybe it's time to quit the acting game."

All in all, THE WITCHES is a sad state of affairs for everyone involved. With a better script and direction, it could have been an effective little shocker ala THE WICKER MAN (1973) and Fontaine certainly deserved better than this as a swan song.

I can't recommend THE WITCHES to any but the most devoted Hammer horror enthusiasts and even those fine folks will find this one a disappointment. Thumbs down.



Thursday, August 24, 2017

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY


Director John Frankenheimer had an incredible run of bravura filmmaking in the early 1960s. Consider his output over a four year span from 1962 to 1966: BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962, his masterpiece), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), THE TRAIN (1964), SECONDS (1966) and GRAND PRIX (1966). Great films all and every one of them well worth seeing, as is most of the Frankheimer filmography, although if I were you, I'd take a pass on THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996) in which a bloated and incoherent Marlon Brando starred as "the island".

What's under review here today is SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, a brilliant political thriller that remains as fresh, bracing and, through a lens of more than fifty years, remarkably prescient with regards to the need to remove a sitting U.S. president from office. The original novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II was written in 1961 and 1962, the beginning of the Kennedy administration and the very height of the Cold War. Screenwriter Rod (TWILIGHT ZONE) Serling, does a terrific job of adapting the material for the screen, compressing the action into a breathless race against time to uncover and stop a planned military coup against the president.

President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), has signed a joint nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, an agreement in which both super powers agree to mutually dispose of their arsenals of nuclear weapons. This accord draws the ire and contempt of General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), who sees it as a sign of weakness. Scott fears the Russians cannot be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain and that the United States must remain strong and eternally vigilant. That means that the military must be in charge of the government and not the weak and conciliatory President Lyman.

Scott launches a plot, code named ECOMCON, which will culminate in a military coup d'etat in seven days time. Scott's aide, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), is left out of the loop concerning the plot which he eventually stumbles across by accident. With little hard evidence, he presents his case to Lyman, who ultimately believes him and the race is on to find out just what exactly ECOMCON is and put a stop to it.

Lyman and Casey are aided by Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O'Brien), Presidential aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), and cabinet member Chris Todd (George Macready). Scott's band of plotters include Colonel Mutt Henderson (Andrew Duggan), venomous television commentator Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe), traitorous Senator Fred Prentice (Whit Bissell) and sinister Colonel Ben Murdock (Richard Anderson).

Caught in the middle between these two groups of men, is one woman, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), a former girlfriend of Scott's who holds letters from him that may help Casey expose the plot. Jiggs romances and seduces Eleanor in order to acquire the letters but he doesn't have to use them in the end.

The action moves swiftly from Washington D.C., to a secret military installation outside of El Paso, to Gibraltar, before coming to a head in the Oval Office. President Kennedy, a fan of the original novel, allowed Frankenheimer and his production crew access to the White House to photograph the Oval Office and other rooms and hallways which allowed the set builders to faithfully recreate them on a sound stage. The Pentagon did not allow the filmmakers access, so all scenes set there take place on sets drawn entirely from imagination.

Frankenheimer orchestrates everything effectively and efficiently. He's got a great script, a powerhouse cast and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, which uses snare drums set to a military cadence for maximum impact and tension.

It's tempting to say that given the current political situation, one that is fraught with danger given the fact that a completely unhinged man is serving as President, that maybe, just maybe, we need someone like a General Scott to step up and initiate a 21st century ECOMCON. Clearly, I do not, in any way, advocate for a removal of any president from office by force of arms, but don't think this movie didn't give me some ideas.

Regardless of who is in the White House at any given moment, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY has stood the test of time and holds up remarkably well. It's a first rate piece of filmmaking, one that earns my highest recommendation.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

HOUSE OF STRANGERS


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched this one the other day and it's a good one.

HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) is the story of Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), a rags-to-riches Italian -American banker in New York City. He's a self made man and he runs his bank according to his rules, which means he loans lots of money to people without bothering about secured collateral. This is a business practice which will ultimately cause his downfall.

Monetti's four sons all work at the bank. There's Joe (Luther Adler), Pietro (Paul Valentine) and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.). All three toil thanklessly in the shadow of their larger-than-life father and yearn for the day when the bank will belong to them. Fourth son Max (Richard Conte), is the only independent one in the family, an attorney who keeps a small office in the bank.

When bank examiners threaten to shut Gino down, Max tries to fix the jury in his father's favor. He fails but is convicted and sent to prison for seven years. When Max gets out, his father has died and his brothers now control the newly reorganized bank. They try to buy Max out and when he refuses to be bought, attempt to murder him. What a swell bunch of guys! Max ultimately triumphs and leaves town with his true love, Irene (the ravishing Susan Hayward).

Although billed as a film noir, HOUSE OF STRANGERS, despite it's suitably noirish title, is really more of an adult drama about family relationships, loyalty, honor, betrayal and trust. The cast is uniformly excellent, the cinematography by Milton R. Krasner is sharp and the screenplay by Philip Yordan (from the novel I'LL NEVER GO THERE ANY MORE by Jerome Weidman), is solid. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does an admirable job of directing in what can be seen as a warm up for his masterpiece ALL ABOUT EVE which he made the following year in 1950.

Even if the noir elements are extremely slight, HOUSE OF STRANGERS is nonetheless a compelling, engrossing drama that's consistently entertaining. Thumbs up.

Monday, August 21, 2017

THE TIGHT CORNER


I paid four bucks for this beauty at the Rhino Bookstore in Nashville. Judy and I visited Music City last month and had a great time. This is only one of the many treasures I scored while there.

Gotta admit, I was totally unfamiliar with the title of this book and the author, Sam Ross. But that cover did a great job of selling the book in 2017 much as I'm sure it did sixty years ago back in August of 1957 when it was published in paperback.

Down and out former boxer Tommy Berks is the set-up man for a high stakes poker game designed to fleece the pigeons. When one of the pigeons decides to quit while he's ahead, the leader of the con, Steve Merrick, orders psycho flunky Willy Clay to kill the man and frame Tommy for the murder. Tommy flees New Orleans and heads into the Louisiana bayou country with Steve, Willy, and Vi, Steve's floozy companion, and police detective Lt. Lucas all hot on his trail. When Tommy is shot by Willy crossing the Mississippi on a ferry boat, Tommy dives into the river where he's rescued by a beautiful young Cajun woman named Jo. She pulls the wounded fugitive onto the boat captained by her brother Adam and the two provide a refuge for Tommy.

Tommy quickly falls in love with Jo and while he desperately wants to stay with her he knows he can have no peace until he confronts the demons, both real and psychological, that are dogging him. Things come to an explosive head in an ending that seems somewhat abrupt.

Ross knows how to keep a reader turning the pages. All of the characters are well developed, the villains are complex and suitably ruthless and there's a strong sense of place in his descriptions of the bayou country and life on a Gulf Coast shrimp boat. While I was tearing through the 144 pages of this thriller, I couldn't help but think that it would have made a great late '50s b&w film noir. Try this cast on for size:  Robert Ryan as Tommy, Anthony Quinn as Adam, Dan Duryea as Steve, Neville Brand as Willy, Hugh Marlowe as Lt. Lucas, Ida Lupino as Vi and the one and only Yvette Vickers as Jo.

THE TIGHT CORNER was definitely worth every penny of the four bucks I bought it for. Thumbs up.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE BRIBE


THE BRIBE, produced at MGM in 1949, is a minor noir that takes place on the small Central America island of Carlota. Government agent Rigby (Robert Taylor, who would have made a good Ham in a '40s Doc Savage film), is dispatched by his boss, Gibbs (John Hoyt) to investigate a criminal ring that is selling World War II surplus airplane engines on the black market.

The gang is composed of sloppy drunk and ex-pilot Tug Hintten (John Hodiak), fat and greasy grifter J.J. Bealer (Charles Laughton) and the mastermind, the smooth and suave Carwood (Vincent Price, oozing menace from every pore). Standing between this unholy trio and Rigby is Hintten's night-club singer wife, Elizabeth (the gorgeous Ava Gardner). The gang tries to bribe Rigby to drop his investigation (hence the title), but Rigby stands firm, even though he's sorely tempted by the ravishing Elizabeth. Things come to a murderous head, climaxing in a well-staged shootout that takes place during a fireworks display.

There's nothing exceptional about THE BRIBE. The screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts from a short story by Frederick Nebel, there's a nice score by Miklos Rozsa and director Robert Z. Leonard, while no genre auteur, is competent. The real pleasure is watching a group of solid professionals do their stuff in front of the camera. Everything is given the slick polish and glossy shine (courtesy of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg) that MGM was famous for, even if it's all staged on a back lot. THE BRIBE is worth a look if you're a fan of noir or of any of the featured players.