Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Son Of Dracula (1943)

Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, Evelyn Ankers, Frank Craven
Directed by Robert Siodmak
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

Count Dracula, posing under an assumed name, takes up residence at an American plantation with the willing aid of a young woman, who is obsessed with the supernatural.

Lon Chaney Jr.'s only featured performance as Dracula, coming about when Universal was casting him as all their classic monsters, is not in the same league as Bela Lugosi's or really any other portrayer of the Count, but I'm still very fond of this film.  Chaney does about as well as one could expect him to do in the role, but in my opinion, it just isn't suited to him, although he's surrounded by a fine supporting cast, with Allbritton a standout as the lady who becomes a vampire herself.  The movie's perhaps most notable for being a collaboration of sorts for the brothers Siodmak, with writer Curt providing the plot (although Eric Taylor is credited with the screenplay), and Robert, better known for his film noir entries, helming the production as director.  Despite Robert's involvement, there's ironically much less shadow here than in the other films of his I've seen, with the focus on showcasing John Fulton's special effects that allow Dracula to transform on camera from bat to human to smoky vapor.  However, the film still has a rich atmosphere, with its bayou setting providing a spooky backdrop for the Count, including a memorable scene where he floats across the river standing atop his coffin.  Interestingly the music score offers moody accompaniment perfectly suited to the action, but heavily features selections from Frank Skinner's score for Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror, oddly featuring the familiar title theme for Holmes and Watson during a climactic moment late in the film.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Dracula (1931) (Spanish Version)

Starring Carlos Villarias, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Eduardo Arozamena
Directed by George Melford
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

The undead vampire Count Dracula travels to England to seek new victims, and focuses on the lovely daughter of the administrator of a sanitarium.

We have here a Spanish language version of the 1931 classic film starring Bela Lugosi, completely recast and filmed on the same sets by a different crew, including cinematographer George Robinson, who would go on to photograph many of the studio's subsequent horror classics.  Robinson's photography is frequently mentioned in critiques of the American version, such as in the Universal Horrors book, and David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic, which both opine that the latter half of the film drags due to unimaginative camera setups, where in the Spanish version the photography is more  fluid.  They have a point, and there are some interesting shots in this version where Villarias as Dracula doesn't appear until the coffin creaks open and voluminous smoke fills the center of the frame.  However, the film is also interminably slow, and the scenes don't flow nearly as well into another, which Tod Browning and the American crew should be recognized for.  Villarias doesn't have the presence of Lugosi, and I can't imagine his performance having the same effect on audiences of the time, casting a much less eerie and mysterious figure, at least in my opinion.  Tovar is an improvement in her take on Helen Chandler's role, and is particularly vivacious in her scenes with Norton after she becomes a vampire as well, but Rubio overacts in a hammy performance lacking some of the subtleties from Dwight Frye's interpretation of the Renfield character.  The film is still interesting for its deviances from Browning's production, but I have to admit it tugs at my eyelids every time I watch it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Vesuvius Xperiment (2015)

Starring Joshua Kennedy, Tomi Heady, Nick McNeil, Giancarlo Caccamo, Brianna Gentilella
Directed by Joshua Kennedy
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

An experiment by the famed Dr. Vesuvius to give a man the ability to breathe underwater results in a terrible mutation, turning him into a murdering monster that escapes a New York hospital.

Turning his eye towards late 1950's science fiction shockers, writer/director/star Joshua Kennedy crafts another wonderful tribute to classic film, again making the most out of limited resources.  The picture adopts the structure and some key scenes from 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment, with Kennedy stepping into the shoes of that film's Brian Donlevy, playing a brilliant scientist whose overarching dedication to science rubs several the wrong way, although he also taps into some of his other acting heroes, notably the great Peter Cushing.  His performance, so dedicated to the cool determined scientist, should recall Cushing and Donlevy and other great actors, delivering his dialogue seriously in his rich deep voice while never cracking a smile.

In addition to Quatermass, there's also visual and dialogue references to the Hammer Frankenstein films, Kurt Neumann's The Fly, and some others I probably missed- it's always fun to watch Kennedy's movies and try to guess what classics of the past inspired him, as well as to witness how cleverly he recreates scenes without the budget, makeup, and special effects that the earlier films enjoyed.

Returning to the world of black and white after his past few movies were lensed in color, the young director makes good use of shadow and spotlights to add contrast and camouflage the university buildings he filmed in, while getting good performances from Caccamo as his ill-fated monster, Heady as the man's dedicated wife, and McNeil as Vesuvius' assistant who boldly challenges the single-minded doctor on a number of occasions.  Friends and classmates of Josh's playing mentally imbalanced hospital patients effectively add a feeling of unease to the setting, with Traci Thomas, Jeremy Kreuzer, and Carmen Vienhage adding some entertaining comic relief, and professors Michael Rosenfeld & Jonathan Danziger providing credibility to the story.

 Although the nature of the transformation of Richard Delambre, a nod to the scientist's surname in The Fly, is so fantastic that it could generate laughs from the audience if allowed, Kennedy never lets that happen, steering the film forward with a single-minded focus not unlike that of the character he plays.  Caccamo helps sell this, emulating Richard Wordsworth's fine performance in Quatermass, and looks great wandering hunched over by his mutation against the backdrop of New York City buildings.

A tribute to The Fly's famous reveal, featuring fine acting by Heady and the exposure of Delambre's mutated face doesn't quite have the same shock value as in that classic film (what could), but represents a best effort from Kennedy with what he had available to him- I think as he grows as a filmmaker, he will have better tools at hand for such scenes, but the same creativity with which to use them.

How wonderful it would have been had Kennedy had a James Bernard to score his picture, as that composer's past work would have been a perfect match for the visuals on the screen, but Josh finds an acceptable replacement in other musical selections, with passages from Holst's Mars, The Bringer Of War providing the right tone of dark menace.

I hope another film of this type is in Kennedy's future- he's shown a fine hand at capturing the eerie and unsettling images that unnerved audiences in the 1950s, and we could always use more movies mining unearthly horror on black and white film stock.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Stranger From Venus (1954)

Starring Patricia Neal, Helmut Dantine, Derek Bond, Cyril Luckham, Willoughby Gray
Directed by Burt Balaban
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

An alien being from Venus lands in England to prepare Earth's people for a visit from his world's leaders, but the British government is intent on keeping his presence a secret.

Obviously made to capitalize on the success of the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, this film not only contains a similar plot and alien character, it features Patricia Neal playing a rehash of her earlier role.  The picture does have merits of its own, including some inventive cinematography by Kenneth Talbot, a haunting love theme from Eric Spear, and a screenplay that takes the story in different directions, commenting unfavorably on politicians who don't act in the people's best self-interest.  Don't expect much in the way of special effects, but by cleverly beginning the film with an aerial flyover from the flying saucer's perspective, followed by Dantine's alien only photographed from the back, the filmmakers build suspense and audience interest, letting us fill in what we haven't seen with our imagination, something that was likely not possible onscreen with the budget available to them.  Keep your eye open for brief appearances by actors Nigel Green and John Le Mesurier.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Cosmic Monster (1958)

Starring Forrest Tucker, Gaby Andre, Martin Benson, Wyndham Goldie, Alec Mango
Directed by Gilbert Gunn
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

Scientists experimenting with magnetic fields accidentally expose a nearby forest to dangerous cosmic rays, which transform the forest's insects into giant monsters. 

I like the premise of this British science fiction picture, and the casting, as I think Tucker and Andre provide sympathetic and engaging leads, but the promise of the film based on those elements is unfortunately squandered by static photography and weak special effects.  Giant projections of insects, although more finely rendered then in some other pictures of the era, just don't cut it as the movie's bogeymen.  If some stop-motion creatures or detailed puppets had been used, I think this would have been a much more memorable and enjoyable film, but that was likely beyond the production's limited budget.  There's a couple moments where the insects are well-integrated into shots with the actors, but for the most part the footage is uninspired and disappointing.  Similarly the presence of an alien character doesn't add much interest to the proceedings, as there's no creativity to his introduction, nor much emphasis on making him stand out visually.  The music score by Robert Sharples isn't bad and the story includes some clever ideas, but the film would have fared far better in different hands.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Starring Forrest Tucker, Laurence Payne, Jennifer Jayne, Janet Munro, Warren Mitchell
Directed by Quentin Lawrence
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

The presence of a mysterious cloud near a mountain where mountain climbers have perished persuades a United Nations agent that a terrible experience from his past is happening again. 

I love this picture, a terrific science fiction thriller adapted from Peter Key's television serial, and very well-scripted by Jimmy Sangster, better known for his Hammer horror film screenplays.  The mountain scenes, augmented by matte paintings and climbing shots that look authentic, give credibility to the alpine setting, and the cast gives fine performances, with Tucker a soft-spoken but natural hero, Munro a fascinating psychic with hypnotic eyes, and Mitchell a convivial but concerned scientist who's simply wonderful in his role.  Suspense is built steadily throughout the picture, heightened by Henry Richardson's sharp editing and Stanley Black's otherworldly music score, and when the film's creatures are finally revealed, they look wonderfully creepy and unsettling, rendered by effects that hold up surprisingly well today.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

Starring Brian Donlevy, Jack Warner, Margia Dean, Thora Hird, Richard Wordsworth
Directed by Val Guest
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

Professor Quatermass successfully launches and returns a rocketship to Earth, but only one of the three pilots is found aboard, and his body is beginning to go through incredible changes.

Based on the television serial by Nigel Kneale, one of the first great Hammer productions comes to life in a gripping and suspenseful film excellently staged by Guest.  The story is condensed a bit by screenwriter Richard Landau and Guest and packed with a bit more action, but the key ideas of Kneale are wonderfully realized with top flight production values, fine photography by Walter Harvey, and an eerie music score from James Bernard.  Although I've read Kneale was not pleased with American star Donlevy's interpretation of Quatermass, and can understand his criticism based on Donlevy's gruff demeanor, I'm fond of the actor's performance, delivering dialogue in urgent and memorable speeches.  However, outdoing Donlevy is Richard Wordsworth as Victor Carroon, the ill-fated astronaut whose anguished face and pounding hand communicate all we need to know about his character despite remaining mute throughout the film.  Although the special effects are limited compared to today's, Guest makes fine choices in what he shows and what he doesn't to spur the audience's imagination.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Man From Planet X (1951)

Starring Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, William Schallert, Roy Engel
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

When a strange planet is discovered to be approaching the Earth, a reporter travels to a small British community where its path is being observed, and encounters an alien visitor.

This is a very eerie and memorable science fiction film, combining the mysterious setting of the foggy British moors with a tale of the first human contact with a creature from another world.  Edgar G. Ulmer, who has been praised by many film critics and historians for making the most out of low budgets, excels here in creating a rich and spooky atmosphere, abetted by fine photography by John L. Russell and foreboding music by Charles Koff.  Screenwriters Aubrey Wisberg & Jack Pollexfen wisely center their story around the film's unearthly visuals, and build suspense by keeping the alien visitor mute, making its intentions and purpose a mystery until near the picture's climax.  Ulmer gets the best out of his cast with nary a star among them, with the possible exception of Schallert who had a long and distinguished career, but didn't play many roles like the greedy scientist he portrays here.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Airline '79 (2015)

Starring Joshua Kennedy, Allie Anschutz, Jeremy Kreuzer, Cody Alvord, Hannah Rose Ammon
Directed by Joshua Kennedy
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

An airline flight to London is placed in jeopardy by a bomb threat, and it's up to Captain Chuck Daniels to try and outsmart the bomber and find a way to save his passengers and crew.

This effort by writer/producer/director Joshua Kennedy is a homage to the airplane disaster films of the 1970s, which were kicked off by the initial film adaptation by Universal Pictures of Arthur Hailey's novel Airport, followed by several sequels.  Also included in the oeuvre was a competing film from MGM, 1972's Skyjacked, which provides the crux of the plot for Kennedy's tribute, in which a message scrawled in lipstick in one of the plane's restrooms spurs the action forward.

Charlton Heston, one of Kennedy's favorite actors, starred in two of the movies referenced, and Kennedy is clearly modeling his performance after the legendary star, which a confrontational speech aimed at the bomber once discovered makes abundantly clear.  He also as Hailey did in his novel, layers the film with multiple intersecting subplots, including a girl fleeing her abusive boyfriend, a pair of pickpockets hounded by an autograph seeker, and flight attendants competing for the Captain's romantic attentions.  The balancing of all those narrative elements within a 50-minute film is impressively pulled off by Kennedy and his cast and crew.

Filmed at Pace University in New York City, the young filmmaker didn't have a real plane interior to work with, but a cobbled-together cockpit and passenger cabin help suspend our disbelief, and although those sets are clearly artificial, that's quickly forgotten when the drama starts to escalate.  Scenes in a traffic control tower, dominated by Pace professor Jonathan Danziger playing the film's hard-nosed troubleshooter, aptly named Art Hailey, are of the same quality, with projections of radar displays on screens and monitors making us forget this was likely filmed in a university classroom.

Kennedy gets fine performances from his young cast of friends and classmates, with memorable turns from Allie Anschutz as his leading lady, Jeremy Kreuzer as a Southern drunkard, Kat Kennedy as the abused girl, Tomi Heady as the more cynical of the pickpockets, Brianna Gentilleia as the perky autograph seeker, Jake Williams as the worried navigator who starts to fold under pressure, and Traci Thomas providing comic relief as a sassy veterinarian who amusingly mispronounces a number of phrases.

Although the film lifts a number of bits of business and pieces of dialogue verbatim from the Airport and Skyjacked movies, uniting those elements in a cohesive screenplay had to have been a challenging chore, but it's the kind of chore which Kennedy has already shown a talent for in past productions.  There were countless scenes from those 1970s efforts he could have chosen to pay tribute to, but the ones selected are effectively used to create drama within the confines of his sets and budget, something he does so well, we've come to expect it.

No, Kennedy's film doesn't contain the star-studded casts or breathtaking aerial effects of the movies he's referencing, but for me, this effort recaptures much of the human spirit on display that made these productions so popular.  And for those who'd like to see another airborne adventure in these modern times where good triumphs over evil after a suspenseful crisis, they need look no further than this film.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Son Of Frankenstein (1939)

Starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

After his father's death, the son of Henry Frankenstein moves into his ancestral castle, and upon discovering that the Frankenstein monster has survived, tries to return him to conscious life.

The second sequel to Universal's original Frankenstein film returns Boris Karloff for the last time in the role of the Monster, who has now become an instrument of murder in the hands of the villainous broken-necked Ygor, played with relish by Karloff's horror rival, Bela Lugosi.  With Rathbone cutting a noble but deluded figure as the son striving for redemption for his father, and Lugosi impressing in a role bereft of his customary accent, it's regrettable that Karloff doesn't have more to do in the film.  Nevertheless, the menace of the Monster pervades the movie, with angry villagers treating Rathbone's arrival with dread, and Atwill's stern but personable police inspector retelling how the creature savagely tore out his arm in childhood.  The gothic imagery and witty satire of James Whale's previous Frankenstein films is largely absent from Lee's production, although there are some impressive sets, but the marvelous music score by Frank Skinner is incredibly effective in establishing a macabre mood, which led to it being reused in several horror and mystery movies by Universal in the ensuing years.  However, it's not all grim horror, as Lugosi's amusing denials of his villainy and Donnie Dunagan's charming and outspoken performance as Rathbone's young son engender smiles between the chills in what has become my favorite entry in Universal's long running Frankenstein series.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Fly (1958)

Starring Al Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price, Herbert Marshall, Kathleen Freeman
Directed by Kurt Neumann
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A scientist creates an incredible breakthrough in a working teleportation machine, but his decision to experiment on himself leads to tragedy for him and his family.

An accomplished film which successfully adapts a wonderful science fiction story by George Langelaan, it was memorably remade in 1986 by director David Cronenberg, but the original still packs a potent punch. This is probably the best and largest budgeted film of producer/director Kurt Neumann's career which was also sadly one of his last due to his untimely death.  The movie features a great cast, including talented thespians Price and Marshall, as well as Owens, who should be lauded for a sensitive and believable performance in a challenging role.  It also looks great, thanks to Karl Struss' excellent color photography, fine special effects, and a well-assembled laboratory set.  The reveal of Hedison's inhuman form is a scene that's become an iconic part of cinema history, combining perfect lighting, a shocking creature makeup, and the point of view shot that everyone who's seen the picture remembers.  Followed by two sequels, which are inferior but still fun, the movie for me bridges the classic monsters of the 1940s with the science fiction themes of the 1950s to create compelling entertainment.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Phantom Ship (1935)

Starring Bela Lugosi, Shirley Grey, Arthur Margetson, Edmund Willard, Dennis Hoey
Directed by Denison Clift
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

The crew of the Mary Celeste are murdered one by one in this presentation of a possible explanation for the mystery of the real-life sailing ship that was found with no one aboard.

Most notable as one of the first productions of the Hammer Films company, who would become world famous for their horror movies a few decades later, the film ironically stars horror icon Lugosi as a seaman aboard the doomed vessel.  Although Lugosi of course played many dark characters throughout his career, this may be the more tortured role he ever played, and the actor does a fine job of delivering anguish and despair through limited dialogue.  As a mystery, it's not among the finer examples of the genre, and we don't get to know a number of characters very well before they're killed off, but a number of scenes aboard ship with eerie silence on the soundtrack except for the whistling wind buffeting the craft are certainly effective.  I've read the original prologue and epilogue were cut from the American release of the film, which is all that apparently exists today, and wonder if they would add some clarity to the picture if restored.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Place Of One's Own (1945)

Starring Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Barbara Mullen, Dennis Price, Helen Haye
Directed by Bernard Knowles
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A retiree and his wife invest in a beautiful estate, but discover afterward that their new home is haunted, and its ghost has taken possession of a young woman they've hired.

Despite a refined cast which includes Lockwood, Mason, Price, and even Ernest Thesiger in a small but pivotal role, the film falls short of becoming a memorable ghost story due to an overemphasis on advancing the plot through dialogue, and a lack of imagination in the film's photography and direction.  While the movie looks crisp and the set decorations do capture the period well, there's no hint of menace using shadow or any effort to create chills through staging or via eerie notes on the soundtrack.  It's not a badly written film, based on a novel by Osbert Sitwell, who apparently collaborated with screenwriter Brock Williams, but when the most exciting scene in the movie is Price driving Lockwood around a circular path in a motorcar, there's clearly a need for something more dynamic.  One compensation in that regard is the presence of Mason, who although oddly cast as an aged retiree despite being still under 40 at the time of the film's release, gives the most watchable performance, bringing the character of a charming but occasionally fiery Scottish gentleman to life.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Slave Girls On The Moon (2014)

Starring Madelyn Wiley, Devin Dunne, Tomi Heady, Joshua Kennedy, Jeremy Kreuzer
Directed by Joshua Kennedy
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A young woman is sent over 6,000 years into the future in order to rescue another time traveler who's gone missing, and both of them end up incarcerated in a nearly impenetrable prison on the moon.

Joshua Kennedy nods his cap towards classic films of the 1960s and 1970s in this madcap sci-fi comedy, but at the same time, it's one of his most original films, and a surefire crowd pleaser.  While the movie employs some familiar plot devices (such as women in prison bonding together against a cruel warden and a talent show put on to cover a jailbreak), it flows with a wild energy that embraces the outlandish and discards the ordinary.

Taking a page from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and its classical music score, Kennedy peppers the soundtrack with a wide variety of familiar selections ranging from Also Sprach Zarathustra to The William Tell Overture along with some more contemporary choices to drive the film forward.  With fast-paced scenes matching the tempo of the music, Kennedy sustains excitement and keeps the mood light, despite some grim moments throughout the picture.

The dark tone underlying the comedy is set primarily through Kennedy's own performance as the evil warden, a clear tribute to one of Josh's favorite performances, that of James Mason as Captain Nemo in Disney's classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.  One does not have to concentrate hard to hear Mason's distinguished and cool but bitter inflection in a striking imitation.  The young filmmaker's costume, complete with wispy beard, navy blazer, and white turtleneck adds to the nostalgic recapturing of the image of Nemo, while a futuristic eyepatch enhances the character's villainy.

Opposing Kennedy's villain is a bevy of lovely ladies playing the inmates of the prison, led by Madelyn Wiley's wide-eyed and spunky Chloe Trustcott, Devin Dunne's slightly off-balance Genevieve Fonda, and Tomi Heady's clever and determined Mai-Ling.  The young ladies do a fine job of settling into the familiar prisoner film archetypes, but making the roles their own, and co-stars like Brianna Gentilella, Carmen Vienhage, and Traci Thomas add some daffy humor to the mix.  Jeremy Kreuzer stands out among the male leads as the silver skinned android-like Lobo, whose hysterical laugh and darting tongue adds character to another sinister adversary for the ladies.

I presume this was Josh's first production filmed nearly entirely at Pace University, and although we can tell university halls and common rooms are standing in for his sets, Kennedy unleashes a cavalcade of special effects and optical shots to sustain the illusion of the future setting.  It's more than impressive for a young student filmmaker to have been able to insert so many visual effects in a film (there must be at least 50 optical shots if not more), and although no one will mistake his work for Industrial Light & Magic's, the end result is certainly successful.

This film recently won an award for best comedy at the Miami Science Fiction Festival and it deserves that accolade and more.  Josh's theater background in mounting productions of The Ten Commandments and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in high school surely came in handy here, in uniting such a wide variety of actresses into an entertaining ensemble, most of whom he probably had not known before he arrived at Pace.  The film might have been improved in some ways here and there-  I'm not sure Wiley's voice-over narration works quite as well as it should, and the talent show may have benefitted from some stronger acts to balance out all the weak ones- but the movie remains a jewel in Kennedy's filmography, one which I hope many audiences in the mood for a good time will soon discover.
 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940)

Starring Lloyd Nolan, Marjorie Weaver, Joan Valerie, Walter Abel, Elizabeth Patterson
Directed by Eugene Forde
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

Shayne is hired by a wealthy friend to watch over his gambling-addicted daughter, but the detective's attempt to teach her a lesson backfires when a man is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect.

We have here the first of several "Michael Shayne" films from 20th Century Fox, starring Nolan as the roguish detective who manipulates evidence to mislead the police while trying to find the real killer.   Nolan was an underappreciated actor who is a wonderful fit for this role, created by author Brett Halliday in a memorable series of novels, and his story and the clever screenplay by Stanley Rauh and Manning O'Connor push and pull the sleuth in and out of trouble very entertainingly.  Composer Cyril Mockridge adds a whimsical Irish theme for Shayne and Donald MacBride amuses as the police chief who matches wits with the detective but never quite catches up to Shayne's trickery.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Neanderthal Man (1953)

Starring Robert Shayne, Joyce Terry, Richard Crane, Doris Merrick, Beverly Garland
Directed by E.A. Dupont
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A scientist discovers a formula that returns cats to their prehistoric forms, and then experiments on himself, eager to prove his theory that neanderthal man was more intelligent than given credit for.

This isn't a great movie, with many ludicrous scenes and a number of plot holes in the screenplay, but I enjoyed it immensely, and it affords familiar 1950s character actor Robert Shayne with one of his few starring roles.  As the cantankerous Clifford Groves, Shayne spits out a plethora of sharply-worded and impressively composed insults to the colleagues that reject his theories, and anyone getting too close to discovering his secret experiments.  The rest of the story isn't quite as creatively written, but I had a great time watching it, especially the filmmakers' attempts to pass off a tiger as its saber-toothed ancestor by trying to integrate footage of the creature with a laughable stuffed replica.  One of a series of 1950s science fiction pictures by the writing team of Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, the film is far from the serious drama they may have intended, but the actors give it their all, although Joyce Terry is a bit too earnest, looking to emote everytime the camera is on her.  Beverly Garland, who of course went on to a decades-long career in film and television, appears in an early part as a local waitress menaced by the neanderthal man.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)

Starring Tadao Takashima, Kenji Sahara, Yu Fujiki, Ichiro Arishima, Jun Tazaki
Directed by Inoshiro Honda
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

While Godzilla is escaping imprisonment in an iceberg, a pharmaceutical company captures King Kong on a jungle island, leading to an eventual clash between the two titanic monsters.

If you were expecting detailed animated monsters rendered with cutting edge special effects, this isn't the movie for you.  However, if you're a fan of Godzilla movies, and enjoy seeing men in monster suits crushing miniature buildings and vehicles, you should be highly entertained.  Although by this time in the Godzilla series any emphasis on realism had declined a bit, a number of other special effects are put to good use to energize the monster battles, including rear projection, giant mockups of Kong's hands, and what appeared to be some stop motion animation to bring a giant octopus' tentacles to menacing life.   The grim devastation in the monsters' wake is lightened by some comical human characters, and although the actual battles between the primary monsters take up a surprisingly short portion of the film, I was entertained well enough, and liked the picture better than the Kong-confined sequel, King Kong Escapes.

Monday, February 6, 2017

X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles
Directed by Roger Corman
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A scientist, convinced he's made a breakthrough in a solution that will allow the eyes to see a greater portion of the visual spectrum, experiments on himself, leading him down a tragic path.

This film features a great subject for science fiction, with the dual edged promise and curse of the jump ahead that Milland as Dr. James Xavier takes, not unlike the story of Frankenstein, and there are hints that Xavier has changed from man to monster in Ray Russell & Robert Dillon's screenplay and the visuals provided by cinematographer Floyd Crosby.  Milland gives a good performance, among my favorites by the actor, believable as the scientist willing to foolishly risk all for his work, but anguished by the after effects he did not anticipate.  Although the movie's budget didn't likely allow for anything too innovative as far as special effects are concerned, the use of irises around what Xavier sees and detailed artist renderings of internal organs help maintain the narrative's illusion as well as the audience's interest, and there of course is also the sequence in which Xavier peers through the clothes of participants at a party, which was probably designed as a selling point before the film was scripted.  Still, the most interesting elements of the film are not its visuals but its ideas, reflected in a memorable sequence where Milland discusses with carnival performers what they think should be done with his gift, which by that time he regards as a curse.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Werewolf Of London (1935)

Starring Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Lester Matthews, Lawrence Grant
Directed by Stuart Walker
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A botanist searching for a rare flower in Tibet is bitten by a werewolf, and when he returns to London, he succumbs to the curse of the beast, which only sap from the flower can prevent.

Universal Pictures' first werewolf film is an efficient and moody thriller, but has seemingly been eclipsed over the years by the popularity of Universal's presentation of The Wolf Man and its sequels.  I think that's understandable, given Lon Chaney Jr.'s more empathetic performance as compared to Henry Hull's here, as well as the quality of the later's film's screenplay and musical score.  However, this movie can be enjoyed on its own merits, avoiding some of the mistakes of the Chaney version, and possessing some interesting visuals of its own, particularly Hull's first transformation, in which his makeup is advanced as he passes each of a series of structural columns.  Warner Oland, a reliable performer whose deliberate delivery and mysterious accent led him to being cast in many different ethnic roles during his heyday, is a strong asset to the film, with his admonitions to Hull and Scotland Yard carrying a great deal of narrative weight.  Karl Hajos' music score is also very appropriate to the film, although it does track in some cues from the Lugosi/Karloff version of The Raven.  While comic relief sequences featuring Spring Byington and the duo of Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury are not particularly amusing, the film should still be appreciated more than I think it is today.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Menace With 5 Arms (2013)

Starring Joshua Kennedy, Ayssette Munoz, Devin Dunne, Jorge Chapa, Kat Kennedy
Directed by Joshua Kennedy
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A small-town sheriff teams with a marine biologist to investigate the mysterious disappearances of people in the nearby desert, and learn a gigantic starfish is behind it all.

Joshua Kennedy's tribute to the giant creatures of 1950s monster movies offers more of what we've come to expect from the young writer/director, a savvy homage to films of the past that also showcases his talent in front of and behind the camera.  Filmed partly in his home state of Texas, and also near Pace University in New York City, the film school which would become his new home, the movie features familiar faces in the cast from Kennedy's past productions, as well as some fresh new ones.

Josh himself, having grown a beard since his last production, graduates to an adult role as Joseph Kerwin, a promoted deputy under stress from dissatisfied locals after the death of the town's popular sheriff, as well as from a breakup with his long-time girlfriend.  He hasn't written for himself an easy character to play, seemingly patterned after the roles of familiar 50's leading man John Agar, a good and decent man who's not perfect and makes mistakes, but doing the best he can, he struggles against simmering anger building up in him.  When his temper finally boils over, it's real and believable, and a worthy accomplishment of acting for a young man still in his teens.  When the film's leading lady enters the picture, he's also able to channel considerable charm and self-confidence despite his character's problems.

That lady is played by Ayssette Munoz, a lovely and self-assured actress who projects a sweet innocence as well as a chip on her character's shoulder after a blunder that damaged her academic reputation.  Her scenes with Kennedy genuinely build rapport and warmth between their characters, even when at odds, with dialogue so reminiscent of the movies 1950s sci-fi fans know by heart.

Those looking for references to their favorite classics will find them in characters like Tommy Green's, representing the teller of tall tales who's the first to warn Kerwin about the starfish, Michael Albeis' defiant promoter who ignores Kerwin's warning to stay out of the desert, and the young girl in shock from her experience with the creature (Erin Alexis Cantu), who comes out of it in a scene paying tribute to 1954's Them!

Kennedy has come a long way in just a few years since the limited special effects of his first production, and is able to stage some impressive technical visuals, sending crowds fleeing across the screen from the giant projected starfish, and helicopters reeling towards their destruction as the menacing creature scales an actual Pace University building.  Still, those nostalgic for Kennedy's creative use of miniature toys in his past movies, will smile when they find those employed here too.

In another sign of the director's growth, Kennedy also composed the music that accompanies the film and although the score is fairly elementary, it's remarkably effective, particularly during the monster scenes.  The sound recording and use of sound effects is also a step up from his past efforts, convincingly creating the bustling background noise of an airport, and the slurping of the creature when attacking its screaming victims.

Kennedy's creativity shines throughout the picture with his only limitation being his budget, and he again finds unique ways to counter that shortcoming.  Not every scene is all that it could be, but that could be said of any film, and like his character of Joseph Kerwin, he endeavors to make a picture that's not a perfect replica of those made by his predecessors, but one that will recall fond memories in an audience appreciative of his efforts.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Batman (1943)

Starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

The U.S. government hires Batman and Robin to defeat the schemes of a sinister spy ring, led by a villainous Japanese agent.

The first appearance of the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder on film comes in this 15-chapter movie serial from Columbia Pictures, which is a fairly decent chapterplay, marred a bit by its wartime propaganda with derogatory language aimed towards the Japanese.  Naish plays the villain, an evil scientist who turns his victims into mindless zombies with an electrical invention, and feeds interlopers to the pit of crocodiles beneath a trap door in his lair.  It's unfortunate with all the colorful villains available in the Batman comics of the period, they chose to go this route, although Naish at least doesn't try to overplay the stereotype he's cast as.  However, Wilson is well-cast in his dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne, playing the lazy millionaire playboy convincingly, and he looks great in the costume, especially when engaged in fisticuffs.  Croft is capable as his youthful sidekick and William Austin is charming and an enthusiastic aide to the dynamic duo as butler Alfred.  An energetic score from Lee Zahler culled from a number of classical works brings excitement to the fight scenes.  This isn't a great adaptation of the comic book hero's adventures, with no comic book villains nor even a Batmobile, but it's a fairly entertaining serial.