Comin’ On Like A… MEGA POST!

100June 16, 2015

So if you watch TV at all, you might be aware that, as I write this, Tropical Storm Bill has made landfall somewhere south of me in Texas, an event that the local media has been trumpeting as if it were the vengeful return of Hurricane Ike, attended by flesh-eating zombies, who were themselves on fire. Grocery stores were emptied out, schools were closed, and I couldn’t go to work. Couldn’t even work on this blog, because my Verizon DSL craps out when it rains. Even the infinitesimal amount of precipitation I’ve gotten so far.

Well, this is what word processors are for, yes? Eventually my Internet has to come back. Eventually my teenage son has to stop barging into my office, demanding I reset “the router” “just in case that might help.” I’ve stopped correcting him that the router and the modem are separate creatures. I just grumble and do it.

In the course of all this madness, as I fall farther and farther behind in everything else, I might as well say, hey, I watched some movies.

THE-INNOCENTS-1961For instance, I watched The Innocents for the first time in, ooooh, maybe 50 years? I didn’t like it back then, but, you know, I was just a kid and all that. I bring entirely new sensibilities to the table. Surely now I will experience it as the classic it truly is!

Nope. I’m going to have to admit that most ghost stories simply do not do it for me, no matter how well made they are, and make no mistake – The Innocents is a well-made movie. Deborah Kerr, as a first-time governess who finds herself in a battle for her charges’ souls against the ghosts of two former servants, felt this was her best role. That’s quite possible. As a child I did not care for the downbeat ending. As an adult I appreciate that Kerr and director Jack Clayton leave the possibility open that this ghost business may all be in the governess’ troubled mind.

Or, if you're Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Or, if you’re Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Well, on then to stuff I appreciated more. Last week we lost a bunch of cool people, the biggest splash belonging to Sir Christopher Lee. I’ve said many times I found him to be an actor of limited range, but he had more presence and gravitas than ten normal actors, and when you put him in the right role, damn but he was unstoppable. One of those right roles was the Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out, Hammer’s movie version of the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name (the credits remind us it is a “classic novel”).

Richelieu, along with his two-fisted pal Rex (Leon Green) are determined to free the son of their deceased comrade, Simon (Patrick Mower) from the insidious control of Mocata (Charles Gray at his villainous best), a Satanist of incredible power. Fortunately for the good guys, de Richelieu is himself knowledgeable in the ways of magic, and is  able to protect his friends – if just barely – from the black magic onslaught that comes. The story meanders a bit, but there’s hypnotism, spirit mediums, giant spiders, the Angel of Death and Satan Himself (a guy with a goat’s head. It’s 1968, after all, and for that, it’s not bad).

There’s a fair amount of action and derring-do – I seem to remember the novel having a lot more, but then, I read it uhhhh forty-something years ago. A lot of movies about Satanism are pretty dull, but this is not one of them. It really needs a quality video release in the U.S., but I say that about most Hammer movies.

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-15h33m46s97

70s, you have so much to answer for.

Then I went to Rick’s for our monthly watching of movies. We had our three movies all picked out, and our pattern of late was two acknowledged classics and one lamentable piece of crap, usually sandwiched between the two classics as a palette cleanser. This time we decided to forego the “shit sandwich” model and start with the non-classic: in this case, the recently-revived Supersoul Brother, which goes by an *ahem* much vulgar title in actuality.

This is the star vehicle for Wildman Steve, a minor league Rudy Ray Moore (who was himself in Petey Wheatstraw as a character named Steve), who plays a wino -named Steve – picked by two thugs to be the guinea pig for a super-strength potion they’ve bankrolled to the tune of six thousand dollars (geddit? Geddit?). The plan is for Steve to carry out a safe from a jewelry store, then the hoods will plug him and make off with the diamonds. They figure this will be a mercy because, unknown to Steve, the formula will kill him in six days. Well, the formula also makes him bulletproof, so he makes off with the diamonds and tries to find an antidote.

supersoul6bigNow that is almost the plot to a decent movie. Unfortunately, this is a Wildman Steve movie, which means it’s a Dolemite movie without the budget, wit or charm.

I’m going let that statement sink in on you for a while. As Rick so very succinctly put it, “This movie makes you re-calibrate your opinion of the Dolemite movies.”

I managed one intentional laugh during the movie. There is also one point during which we said, “You know, this was an okay movie until these white women showed up,” so there are degrees of bad. Predictably, although a derelict wino, Steve has no problem getting women into bed. The mad scientist, Doctor Dippy (Peter Conrad) has a girlfriend played by the magically named Wild Savage, who seemingly took acting lessons from Dolores Fuller, but again, without the budget, wit or charm of an Ed Wood movie.

vlcsnap-2015-04-15-19h33m18s228This was directed by Miami filmmaker Rene Martinez, Jr., whose other big claim to fame is The Guy From Harlem, which, dammit, I own, so someday I have to watch it. At one point we spotted a triple-beam scale in Dr. Dippy’s office and Rick said, “That’s how they measured out the payroll every week.”

Vinegar Syndrome’s DVD is mainly clear and deceptively beautiful, but it has enough missing frames and streaking to really bring home the seedy grindhouse experience. I can’t recommend it, but I also cannot wait to force it on my friends.

Well, I see Everything is Terrible has edited it down to two minutes. Be aware this only gives you the smallest inkling of it’s… uh… quality:

So to soothe our bruised sensibilities, we slipped in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

The_Great_Dictator-335887708-largeChaplin’s first all-sound movie still has stretches of silent comedy (or scenes that would play as well silently), but suffers from some tonal problems. It’s the tale of a Jewish barber who spends years in a hospital, suffering amnesia from injuries in a World War I-style war between the countries of Tomania and Bacteria. Thus he misses the rise of dictator Adenoid Hynkel, his Double Cross party, and his anti-Jewish agenda. Both men are played by Chaplin.

Chaplin’s Hitler manque is justly famous – he spent hours watching footage of Hitler and knows exactly how to puncture the dictator, right down to his adjutants, rechristened Herring (Billy Gilbert) and Garbitsch (Henry Daniell). The Hynkel scenes are so exacting, so precise, that the parallel storyline with the barber seem scattered and happenstance – the Barber isn’t even given a name – until the two switch places, more by accident than anything.

Charlie-Chaplin-in-The-Gr-004It was, in fact, a matter of some curiosity to me that nobody notices the two men are identical. In retrospect, that is absolutely the right way to approach it; as one of the Juden, the Barber is considered by the stormtroopers to be subhuman, and therefore no notice is given to him as a person; it isn’t until the Barber escapes from a concentration camp and is found in a stolen uniform that it is assumed he is Hynkel, just as Der Fooey, taking a pre-invasion vacation in an Alpine costume, is mistaken for a common man.

This is all leading up to the Barber giving a speech when everyone assumes he is Hynkel, to celebrate his conquering of another fictional country; the speech is, instead, one advocating peace and brotherhood, and you have no doubt had it posted to your various timelines more than once, captioned as “The Greatest Speech Ever Made” (and here it is with some Hans Zimmer music, for  extra chills):

Please note that this speech is also one of the pieces of evidence given for branding Chaplin a Communist. Why? Because fuck the world, that’s why.

As I said, I don’t feel the two storylines mesh ideally, but who cares when the two resulting movies are this good? Chaplin was very nervous about his first talkie, so much so that the movie pretty much ruined his relationship with Paulette Goddard, radiant as always as the Barber’s girlfriend, Hannah. He needed not have worried so much, even if in later years he had misgivings about taking a relatively lighthearted approach when the true horrors of Nazi Germany began to come to light. But The Great Dictator had such value as a propaganda tool in the early days of World War II, it cannot be discarded as misguided. Hell, it’s even recorded that Hitler himself had a copy smuggled in so he could watch it. Apparently he did so twice.

mononcle-posterSo, excellent movie, even though I could not, in all conscience, give it the full five stars. Unlike the movie which ended our evening, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.

Several years back, when I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger and needed to start experiencing a higher quality of film, this is precisely the sort of movie I suspected I was missing out on. I don’t even know how to begin to talk about it, as the examination of even one of the many wonderful bits of imagery that run throughout the movie leads to the temptation to talk about all of them.

But let’s try. In the introduction to Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, one of the many plot threads concerned a young boy, whose businessman father was too occupied with important phone calls to pay attention to his son (much less enjoy his own vacation), who began to emulate Hulot. In Mon Oncle, Tati makes that connection a familial one.

Mononcle houseGerard (Alain Becourt) is the son of the Arpels; Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) is the manager of a successful plastic hose company; Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) busies herself with caring for their ultra-modern and extremely ugly house. Hulot (Tati, as always) is Madame Arpel’s brother, living in a strange apartment building requiring an almost Escher-like path to get to his room, at the very top. Hulot lives in a older, rundown suburb that might as well be the rustic village in Jour de Fête; the heartbeat of life there is much slower and more erratic than in the contained and regimented world of the Arpels.

hqdefaultThus, Gerard looks forward to his outings with his uncle – they promise and provide more adventure and actual living than in his nightmare Tex Avery Home of the Future (at one point the Arpels quite literally become prisoners of their own technology). The Arpels, of course, keep trying to cram Hulot into the pegboard of their lives – Arpel gets him a job in the plastics factory (which goes about as well as you’d expect), while his sister attempts to set him up with their next-door neighbor, a bizarre scarecrow given to wearing Andean rugs as a cape.

Mon_Oncle_Hulot_Arpel-Large1Tati isn’t really against the modernity of the Arpel’s house, he’s more against the fact that it’s a house to be shown, not a house to be lived in – there is not a single comfortable chair in the joint, they are all plastic monstrosities that theoretically double as pieces of art. Even then, Tati is never truly vicious in his portrayal of the nouveau riche couple. Even when the father, tired of his son’s admiration for Hulot, packs him off to the provinces – a rather downbeat ending, in my estimation – Tati manages to wring a bit of sweetness from the proceedings, a reconciliation between father and son that shows the father may not have been totally despising his brother-in-law all this time.

Wow, we just hit 2000 words on this, but I managed to be kind of brief about Mon Oncle, so let’s try to get one more movie in here, continuing the comedy vein with Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.

smiles-of-a-summer-night-movie-poster-1955-1020235556This was the movie that made Bergman’s bones, make no mistake. He was terribly depressed, and his producer telling him if his next picture didn’t make some money, they wouldn’t be letting him make any more probably didn’t help. Then they entered Smiles into Cannes without telling him, it was a major hit, and suddenly they had to let him make his dream project, The Seventh Seal, which cemented the whole “genius” thing for him. Smiles also inspired Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but that’s not as much fun as imagining he based Sweeney Todd on Bloodthirsty Butchers.

Smiles is one of those mannered comedies about relationships concerning six couples, most of whom are entangled with the wrong people, and the conniving actress who gathers them all at a country estate so that everybody can get with the right person. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrad is Egermann, a middle-aged lawyer married to a 20 year old girl, who is still a virgin (also, his depressive adult son, the same age as the bride, is in love with her). The conniving actress is Egermann’s former mistress, who may have had his illegitimate son (which is a surprise to Egermann). She is currently the mistress of Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, a martinet who would allow his own wife to have affairs, if that just didn’t make him so jealous.

smileshaAnd just to add a little spice to the proceedings, there’s the child bride’s saucy maid, played by Harriet Andersson (who blew me away so completely in Through a Glass Darkly), who is herself looking for love. Bergman had apparently been having a love affair with Andersson prior to this movie, but it was over by this point – another reason for his profound depression during shooting.

It’s a complex plot, but Bergman keeps a bunch of balls in the air and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion. The main thrust of the story is that men are are a bunch of idiots and women can make them do anything they want, and I’d argue with that if I could. I was confused through the opening half of Smiles, because Egermann’s relation with his second wife – who he finally admits loves him more like a father than a mate – bears more than a slight resemblance to the life of Moliere, the French playwright who lends much inspiration to this script.

charlottefredrik360Moliere was similarly married to a much younger woman, even more unhappily than Egermann. Back when I was an actor, I played Moliere in a repertory project that alternated Mikail Bulgakov’s biographical The Cabal of Hypocrites with The Imaginary Invalid. In preparation, I read Bulgakov’s excellent biography of Moliere, along with the playwright’s works, and the most revelatory experience was reading The School for Wives, which is about… an older man married to a much younger woman. The final scene is basically a duel of romantic pronouncements between Moliere’s character and his wife’s younger lover. Contemporary reviews of the play mention Moliere’s hilarious puncturing of overwrought romantic plays and their actors in that scene, but knowing the man’s life, you are struck by how easily it could be played as bleakest tragedy, without changing a single word.

There’s quite a bit of that vibe in the opening act of Smiles of a Summer Night. By the third act, I was pretty certain it was a comedy, though, largely thanks to Andersson’s maid and her earthy major domo boyfriend, played by another repertory company member , Åke Fridell. And if nothing else, I liked it a whole lot more than the similarly-themed Rules of the Game.

It’s now June 22, and I have written 2725 words. Good God, I have work to do. Here, take this.

Arabian Hellzamaniacs

So I went to Dave’s. So did Rick. We watched some movies.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

From the Broadway Revue, not the movie. Do you care?

From the Broadway Revue, not the movie. Do you care?

Now this is what you call your basic bucket list movie. It actually got mentioned in Famous Monsters, once upon a time, and I’ve wanted to see it ever since. The fact that it’s known as a milestone in anarchic filmmaking is also a definite plus. So when Dave managed to conjure up a copy, I was, as they say, there.

The movie opens with an incredible production number in Hell (the reason the movie ever cropped up in Famous Monsters), but the director charged with making the movie version of Olsen & Johnson’s successful New York stage show (in 1941, the longest-running show on Broadway!) wants to make an entirely different sort of movie altogether. Aided by a pre-Gunsel Elisha Cook, Jr. reading and re-working the script, Olsen & Johnson watch the dailies of this new movie, supplying voices for the characters, until one of them asks, “Doesn’t this movie have any sound?” “Sure, listen!” the other replies, and BAM, we are into that movie.

hellzapoppin1These bits leading up to our more normal picture are fast-paced and brilliant, and there was no way Olsen & Johnson could have kept that up – not without their stock-in-trade, interacting with a live audience. Still, you give out a heavy sigh when we slip into the usual screwball romantic comedy that forms the core of Hellzapoppinthe Movie. The romantic lead is staging a charity show at the mansion of his lady love, but he doesn’t want to butt in on his pal, who is at least as wealthy as the girl; he doesn’t want to look like he’s a gold digger. The boys are running tech for the show, and brought along their kid sister to help lug props: an incredibly young Martha Raye (only 25 at the time), playing a man-hungry wench who sets her sights on a fake European Count. There are mistaken identities, crosses and double-crosses, and thank God Olsen & Johnson not only tear down the fourth wall repeatedly, they dance on the rubble of the wall and then sell it for scrap.

HellzapoppinWe had some conversation about what the original stage show must have been like, because Olsen & Johnson use the medium of film for all its worth, having shouted conversations with the projectionist (Shemp Howard, no less), and doing any number of things that would be impossible on stage. One thing that could be done on stage, and is so amazing that we played it twice (and if I’m not mistaken, was excerpted in one of the That’s Entertainments): during a check of the instruments, every black servant on the estate wanders onto the stage conveniently built in the backyard, and they have an impromptu, amazing Lindy Hop number that is physically exhausting just to watch:

“Man, I wish they were in the show!” says one of the boys afterwards. You ain’t the only one, Jackson. The dancers, known as The Harlem Congaroos, are the only personnel from the Broadway show to make the leap to the movie version.

The effort to superimpose a plotline over what was apparently a vaudeville show writ large should have damaged it, but instead Olsen & Johnson grabbed the opportunity and made a movie so profoundly postmodern that every hipster should carry a copy of it in their pocket; yet, for some reason, home video currently eludes it, or vice versa. The best known of Olsen & Johnson’s movies, that’s a shame: it should stand as an example of how studio meddling can’t quite bring the creative spirit down.

Diplomaniacs (1933)

10091Yeah, it was me who wanted to glory in the Old Stuff that night, and that desire was sparked by this movie. The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey have, much like Olsen & Johnson, descended into obscurity, but thanks to Warner Archive, have had a bit of a renaissance. Diplomaniacs was an impulse buy – I needed one more disc for one of their “5 for $50” sales – but oboy, what a stroke of luck.

Wheeler and Woolsey have opened a barber shop on an Indian reservation, figuring there would be no competition – but there’s no custom, either. But hearing Woolsey making barbershop talk about international debts, the oil-rich tribe decides the barbers are their best bet for signing a peace treaty with the rest of the world. So our doofuses – the musically named Willy Nilly and Hercules Glub – are given a million dollars each and sent to Geneva.

maxresdefaultThis opening bit is little more than your typical Three Stooges opening gambit, though the Stooges didn’t have production numbers with scantily-clad pre-Code Indian maidens. But once they get on the ocean liner to Geneva, the movie really takes off, and what I mean by that is writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ opium shipment arrived. The remainder of the movie is so fast-paced and anarchic, so downright silly, that it is hard to imagine some manner of narcotic not being involved. Hugh Herbert (who was in Hellzapoppin’ as the detective with a bewildering array of bad disguises) is the villainous Chinaman Chow Chow, who begins every line with “It is written…” He’s the henchman of Louis Calhern, whom Dave immediately recognized as Trentino in Duck Soup. Calhern is, himself. working for a war munitions manufacturing combine run by Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen and Puppenpuppen.

As I said, it’s a very silly movie, and I loved it. Sure, the casual racism of Chow Chow can be off-putting, but then Wheeler and Woolsey double down on the racism – hell, triple, quadruple down – with a final production number at the Peace Talks. Tex Avery cartoons had a long tradition of what Dave terms “blackface dynamite”, where characters getting a faceful of TNT were instantly transformed into minstrel show performers. Here is the precursor to that, a surprisingly effective bomb labeled “BOMB – For medicinal purposes only” (I kind of hate that the image is so soft here you can’t read that):

Oh, Holy Mother of God

Oh, Holy Mother of God

Is this offensive? Well, duh. But I also think that extending the bomb’s effect to the observation gallery, and reversing Woolsey’s black glasses frames to white, points to a certain amount of piss-taking going on. It is a silly part of a very silly movie, and I look forward to seeing more of these madmen at work. Pity Mankiewicz isn’t credited as writer on any other Wheeler and Woolsey movies. Hopefully there was more opium floating around Hollywood.

Diplomaniacs on Amazon

Arabian Adventure (1979)

arabianadventureosI had brought the 1937 Sh! The Octopus, which would have provided us with a Hugh Herbert Film Festival, but this was deemed too Mantlerian so we watched Arabian Adventure, which I had never seen. It was a fairly obvious attempt to produce a Star Wars rip-off without being obvious about it, and its success pretty much depends on how you feel about Kevin Connor movies. Connor had previously directed fare like At the Earth’s Core, The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis. Genre adventures made with special effects that were dated, even for their time, also known to me as The Movies You Take A Nap During At B-Fest.

Arabian Adventure isn’t too bad, especially if you approach it as a children’s movie. It has all the standard Arabian Nights claptrap: an evil, wizardly Caliph (Christopher Lee!), a sniveling toadie (Milo O’Shea), a prince in disguise (Oliver Tobias) and a princess to rescue (Emma Samms). Also a plucky young orphan and his trained monkey, and an imprisoned good Vizier (Peter Cushing, who graces the movie far too little).

Can't touch this!

Can’t touch this!

The big scene here for the Star Wars crowd is a climactic dogfight on magical flying carpets, which manages to squeeze out a bit of excitement, but overall could have been much more impressive. Our big moments of groaning horror had to do with the appearance of Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, trollish blacksmith in charge of the giant fire-belching Kevin Connor puppets, and John Ratzenberger as the head of a group of thieves. Many were the Cliff Clavin imitations that punctuated our Arabian Adventure.

Like I said, entertaining enough, but curiously of a piece with how we began our evening: an episode of Space: 1999 that Rick credits with totally destroying his cherished memories of childhood. I’m in no rush to revisit either.

Arabian Adventure on Amazon

 

 

 

C: Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

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1957-UK-The-Curse-of-FrankensteinWhy yes, it has taken me an inordinately long time to watch this movie – Hammer’s first gothic horror, and a film that arguably kicked off the horror boom that would blossom in the 60s. During my younger years, this was understandable, since the local TV channels seemed to have no problems showing Horror of Dracula (and especially Brides of Dracula) over and over again, but the Hammer Frankensteins seemed to rarely crop up. In Curse‘s case, never. So, when it was finally released on DVD  in 2002, I snatched it up – and proceeded to ignore it for 12 years.

Don’t judge me, ye’ve not had my life.

curse_of_frankenstein_poster_03Rather famously, Universal threatened to sue this upstart British company if they dared to imitate their 1931 tentpole, and this was actually a good thing. I’ve read accounts that claim that the initial concept was to do a black-and-white movie with Karloff as the Monster – hell, Hammer even calls it “The Creature” so they couldn’t be accused of ripping that off – and the threat of litigation forced them to create something unmistakably their own.

First of all, the movie is in color – a semi-big deal in 1957. It starts the Hammer look of a subdued color palette against which any bright color – especially blood red – really pops off the screen. Costume designer Molly Arbuthnot has a ball with some amazingly textured fabrics. There are no lab coats and rubber gloves in this milieu,  our mad scientist does his bloody work in frock coats and cravats, white cotton gloves.

The movie begins with a desperate Baron von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) telling a priest his tale on the eve of the Baron’s execution; the extended flashback which forms the movie proper takes its time, beginning with Victor Frankenstein as a young man, the last of his family, inheriting a vast fortune and hiring a brilliant science tutor, Paul (Robert Urquhart) who eventually becomes his collaborator in fringe science. After successfully bringing a dead puppy back to life, Paul is ready to publish, but Victor wants to go even further – to create life itself, using pieces of corpses as a framework.

648112Now, that is a hell of a leap, and if anyone doubts Peter Cushing’s skills as an actor (PS, if you do, you’re an idiot), the fact that Cushing actually pulls this off should provide more than adequate proof. His Frankenstein is quite the amazing portrayal, in fact – a rich nobleman used to getting his way, capable of great charm but so cocooned within his wealth and privilege that he can’t see the potential harm in anything he does, and in the pursuit of his ultimate goal, it becomes no surprise that murder becomes just another tool.

Paul, at first uneasy about his former student’s new experiments, eventually refuses to have anything to do with this horror, but Victor forges on, even when Paul deliberately tries to sabotage the process by damaging the brain of a brilliant, aged scientist Frankenstein has killed so that his creation can have the brain of a genius. Frankenstein’s first attempt to animate the Creature fails because his equipment – a riot of pre-Victorian galvanism and colored bubbling liquids – was built to be operated by two people. While he tries to convince Paul to help him, a lucky lightning strike surges through the equipment, and a surprised Victor Frankenstein is soon confronted by his own success – which instantly tries to murder him.

MCDCUOF EC019This is also one of the best fruits of the threatened lawsuit from Universal: the creation of a new visage for the Monster. Apparently in complete desperation, makeup artist Phil Leakey created this new version directly on Christopher Lee’s face at the last minute, using traditional supplies like cotton and spirit gum, very much in the tradition of the classic Universal monsters. Striking, horrifying and completely its own… creature.

Christopher Lee was cast as the Creature largely due to his impressive height (they almost cast another actor, Bernard Bresslaw, who was two inches taller than Lee). Now, I have the utmost respect for Christopher Lee: he has led an amazing life, recently turned what? 92? And is still kicking ass. But. I have always considered him an actor of limited range, but undeniable and truly impressive presence, That is a quality which must not be underestimated. And sadly, this role would not have given him an adequate showcase anyway: that lawsuit again, and though Lee’s Creature does have its moments of pathos, it falls to him to simply be murderous – there is no trace of Karloff’s incredible, often sensitive performance in 1931.

curse_of_frankenstein_23The story does get a bit meandering: the Creature escapes, kills a couple of people (the first one being a blind man, the polar opposite of a similar sequence in Bride of Frankenstein – take that, Universal!), and Paul shoots it through the head. This is no obstacle to Frankenstein, however, who simply resurrects it again after, once more, repairing the brain Paul had damaged. Victor uses the monster to rid himself of a troublesome maid attempting to blackmail him into marriage; it is for that murder that Frankenstein will be remanded to the guillotine at movie’s end, the monster having escaped once more, attempting to murder Victor’s bride, and finally winding up in the scientist’s convenient acid vat, erasing all evidence of the brute who actually killed the maid. Paul keeps quiet about the Creature, too, realizing death is the only way to stop the obsessed Victor.

hazel-court-in-the-curse-of-frankenstein-1957Having mentioned Victor’s bride, I should take a moment for Hazel Court, who plays Elizabeth. Lovely and talented, Court appears in several gothic horror movies, and she is, sadly, particularly wasted here; Elizabeth exists only as a reason to keep Paul in Castle Frankenstein, hoping to protect her from the horror of Victor’s experiments. Like Lee and Cushing, she was a veteran actor at this point, and probably used to such things. Check out her filmography at the IMDb – her talent was recognized, at least.

Speaking of Cushing and Lee – this is the movie that kicked off a close friendship that would last the rest of their lives, reportedly sparked into existence when Lee complained he had no lines and Cushing responded, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” They had appeared in the same movie at least twice before, but never on the same set on the same day. Both were devoted fans of Looney Tunes, and I don’t know about you, but the idea of these two men imitating Sylvester J. Cat and Tweety-Pie between takes is something that keeps me warm on cold winter nights.

curse of frankenstein headerThe last thing that sets Curse of Frankenstein apart from its Universal forefather is an interesting reversal: both spawned many sequels, but in the Universal series, it was the Monster that remained the same, while the doctors around it changed. It was the exact opposite in the Hammer series: the monster would change, but the doctor (with one notable exception) was the constant: Peter Cushing, building on this complex, nuanced performance over the course of the next fifteen years.

Buy Curse of Frankenstein on Amazon

Lurching Toward Halloween

This has been a rather full month. I started an entry about two weeks ago, about my viewing of the Matt Helm spy spoof The Silencers, but then found out Teleport City had done one of their typically complete and engaging exposés on the entire Matt Helm oeuvre, rendering anything I might have to say pretty moot. Then things got pretty busy. Pretty, pretty busy.

My day job is back on the one-story-a-week schedule, I find myself attending up to three meetings a week for various writing projects, my weekend show – usually only Saturdays – has added Fridays and occasional weekday private shows, I still work at least three city meetings a month… it’s been a rough-and-tumble confluence of three part-time jobs with three freelance jobs, leaving no time for non-paying propositions like watching movies and then blogging about them.

It’s usual to do something stupid under these circumstances, like another Movie Challenge, especially since I finally seem to be recovered from the last one. For a longtime horror fan like myself, 31 Days Of Horror seems like a natural, right? Then I look at my Google Calendar for October, tote things up, and discover I have, at present, 18 of those evenings free – if I totally ignore the freelance writing work, which I won’t, because they’re like, paying me money (that work ethic may be compromised as that project is dependent on a government grant, and some lunatics think it would be a good thing to shut down the government for a while). So I put together a list of 18 movies I want to watch in my birthday month, almost certainly an act of punishable hubris. There is a stretch goal of 31, because I also like science fiction, har de har.

I also cheat, and have so far watched 3 of the stretch goal movies, and two of the 18, here in September.

Frankensteins-ArmyThere had been a steady stream of good advance buzz on Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army, and that, coupled with an impressively cheap blu-ray, put it square in my sights. It has a great, creepy storyline with an unexpected viewpoint: a Soviet recon squad in WWII Germany responds to a distress call from another Russian squad and finds itself in a deserted village with a funeral pyre made of nuns and a cemetery full of opened, empty graves. Things quickly go from bad to worse as they find themselves besieged by primitive cyborgs cobbled together by none other than Victor Frankenstein, building super soldiers for an increasingly desperate Third Reich.

That’s pretty standard comic book boilerplate, but two things set Frankenstein’s Army apart: first, the brilliant (if incredibly twisted) production design by Raaphorst – not just the creatures, dubbed “zombots”- but the superbly creepy-ass village, retrofitted by him and his crew in an abandoned coal mining complex outside Prague. Second, the fact that this is a found footage movie.

Yeah, yeah, stop your moaning. I like them – they’re great, if done well (and what can’t you say that about?), and Frankenstein’s Army gets it right in large part. At least once you get over the concept of a 1940s movie camera that is man-portable, records sound, and has an abundant supply of film. And the fact that our cameraman gets some shots that would be impossible, or at least ridiculously dangerous, in the field. Or…

Pfeh. I’m watching a movie about Nazi Zombies with blades for hands and propellers for heads. Suddenly I’m concerned about realism? And there’s certainly enough audacious instances causing this battle-hardened monster movie watcher to go “Holy shit!” that any imperfections along the way get immediately forgiven.

a-bay-of-blood-movie-poster-1020534632That got followed up with Mario Bava’s seminal murder spree movie, A Bay of Blood, aka Carnage aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, which starts with a bizarre, wince-inducing murder, and then seems to violate giallo tradition by revealing the identity of the black-gloved murderer.. but then he gets murdered, and things start to spiral out of control from that initial five minutes.

The first murder – of a wheelchair-bound countess – means a power vacuum around the ownership of the titular bay, an idyllic place that the dead woman strenuously resisted developing. The Bay is now up for grabs, as her second husband (the now-deceased murderer) has apparently disappeared, leaving it up to his daughter and, surprise, surprise, a bastard son. The architect who wants to develop the Bay (and already has a very nice house there) is pressuring the bastard to sign over everything, a bunch of dune-buggy riding hippies break into his house to party (and wind up getting killed), the daughter and her husband show up, and she’s not adverse to getting her hands bloody (or significantly, forcing her husband to get his equally sanguinary) and holy crap the death count just starts spiralling and finally you’re not really sure who’s killed who.

That speaks to Bava’s usual streak of jet-black comedy. There’s something about the Bay – or real estate in general – that just seems to kick off everyone’s killer urges, leading up to one of the most demented, absurd conclusions in any horror movie. At least three of the murders are famously stolen for Friday the 13th parts one and two, movies I would have liked had they a fraction of the wit and style exhibited here.  Needless to say, it’s Mario Bava, so the cinematography is gorgeous even when grotesque, and the Kino Blu-ray punches all that up admirably.

DraculaPrinceOfDarkness_FrSmallDracula, Prince of Darkness is not my favorite Hammer Dracula, but until Horror or Brides is released on Blu here in the US, it will suffice. In fact, I found myself warming to this entry on my first viewing in years – and come to think of it, chances are good my previous attempt was mangled for TV.

Four English twits touring their way through Europe ten years after the events of the first movie have some incredibly bad luck and wind up spending the night at Castle Dracula. The manservant, Klove (Philip Latham) guts one of them over a stone sarcophagus, using his blood to resurrect his dusty master. So Christopher Lee is back, stalking the womenfolk, and snarling a lot (It’s a great story, though unproven, that Lee found the Count’s lines so terrible that he refused to speak them).

Prince has some great setpieces, driverless carriages and slow unfolding of plot. It also has some dreadfully clunky places, and suffers from the absence of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. The substitute is Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a bluff, brusque clergyman who has not time for fools or the undead’s nonsense. Keir is great in the role, and honestly, you can’t criticize him for not being Peter Cushing – who among us is? Anyway, Father Sandor is memorable enough that he inspired a continuing comic in the Hammer House of Horror magazine called “Father Shandor, Demon Stalker”, which I know about primarily because it carried over to the amazing Warrior magazine.

If nothing else, Prince does pay homage to several tropes of vampire mythology that Hammer would exploit many times in the coming years – the thralls, like Klove and mad Ludwig; vampires having to gain permission to enter a house; and their allergy to running water. Not top-notch Hammer, but better than none at all.

outpost2dI bought the DVD for Outpost because – well, okay, because it was cheap, but also because it’s a horror movie starring Ray Stevenson. Latecomer that I am, my first exposure to Stevenson was in Punisher: War Zone (the only Punisher movie I’ve ever liked), and then I was overjoyed to find him cropping up in other places: HBO’s Rome, that weirdass steampunk Three Musketeers. He has nowhere near the girth to play Volstagg in the Thor movies, but I’m still glad he got the role.

So. Outpost. Stevenson leads a squad of mercs into an abandoned Nazi bunker and fights zombies. Oh, holy mother of God and all the disciples in a Honda Civic,  not Nazi zombies again!! How did they manage to lose the war with all these Hell Creatures at their beck and call?

I’m going to give Outpost the courtesy of admitting it at least gives these zombies a different, even unique, origin: the SS, in the last throes of the War, are messing around with Unified Field Theory, with the result being a bunch of stormtroopers under command of a pasty white Gestapo officer (a genuinely unnerving Johnny Meres), unstuck in time, trapped in a limbo that allows them to conveniently appear and disappear, apparently at will. And, as we learned in Dead Snow, all Nazis care about is being evil dickweeds. Our mercs are there to help a historian find the Unified Field Generator for his wealthy backers, who turn out to be just as ruthless as the Nazis.

If there is a major flaw in Outpost – outside the feeling that we’ve already been through this many times before – it’s that our mercs are so obviously, hopelessly overmatched, there’s no real suspense, just some nasty kills. When our remaining crew do figure out a plan to extricate themselves, it relies heavily on the Nazis conveniently forgetting they can shadow walk anywhere in the complex. This didn’t stop the production of a recent sequel, Outpost: Black Sun, so it must have had some success.

I do still love Ray Stevenson, though.

I also love living in the DVD age. The mercs run the gamut of nationalities and opaque accents, so the ability to turn on subtitles was a real plus.

World-War-ZSince I ended my decade-long moratorium against zombie movies, the floodgates have opened, as it were (in other words, I am dealing with that particular glut of product), so why not experience the ne plus ultra of this bizarre cultural obsession, something that would have been unthinkable back in 1978, when Romero released Dawn of the Dead: a zombie movie costing over $200 million, World War Z.

Since Max Brooks’ novel of the same name was subtitled An Oral History, deviation from the source material was practically a given, unless you wanted a movie about a bunch of people being interviewed or Ken Burns’ World War Z. What we get instead is Brad Pitt playing a former UN war crimes investigator having the worst day of his life, being pressed back into service by the end of the world.

World War Z is more disaster movie than zombie flick, but with a budget that huge, it is also an incredibly impressive disaster movie. Way back when,  watching one of the movies that triggered my moratorium, Resident Evil, there was one moment that I did appreciate: the final pullback from Milla Jovovich to reveal a city devastated by a zombie apocalypse. World War Z gives us several segments of the apocalypse in progress, and that money gets spent hard, and much of it winds up on the screen. Great cast, good effects work, dynamite pacing, and a few genuine surprises. It was everything I look for in movies. Not just horror movies, but movies in general.

As I write this, September is drawing to a close. This looks to be another busy week, even though my freelance jobs are probably going to be shut down for a while thanks to some World War Z-worthy antics in D.C. After a burst of tending to my other jobs, I’ll be back to the horror movies, taking comfort in the fact that the insanity in them is limited to two hours or less, and the impact upon myself and my family, minimal.