Saturday, July 22, 2017

The War Of The Worlds (1953)

Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio
Directed by Byron Haskin
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

Investigations into meteors that crash land on Earth reveal they are actually spaceships from Mars, carrying deadly machines out to conquer the planet. 

Legendary fantasy film producer George Pal presents one of his keystone films, an updating of H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi drama that had been earlier presented as a famous radio drama by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre.  The visual design of the Martian death machines is iconic, and although it probably doesn't hold up as well to modern audiences, it had to have made a huge impact on 1950s viewers, accompanied by unnerving sound effects of destruction.  When we finally get to see a Martian, the creature's composition is also unique and memorable among cinematic aliens.  Barry and Robinson make fine leads, but the film's lasting power really resides in the bleak story and the quality of the pyrotechnic special effects.

The Black Castle (1952)

Starring Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Paula Corday, Lon Chaney Jr.
Directed by Nathan Juran
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

An English adventurer arranges to visit the castle of a sadistic count he suspects of murdering his closest friends, and falls for the count's innocent young wife. 

Following in the footsteps of The Strange Door, that film's screenwriter Jerry Sackheim presents another costume drama with horror elements, and like the prior film, succeeds best with the film's villain, Count Karl Von Bruno, portrayed by Stephen McNally.  McNally gives the eye-patched Count a memorable sinister characterization, but there's not much depth to Sackheim's story with a plot proceeding rather by-the-numbers in following similar adventures we've seen before.  Still, there are some exciting perils for Greene to face, including a savage black leopard and a pitful of crocodiles, and Irving Glassberg's photography and the fine supporting cast are worth checking out.  Karloff and Chaney only play minor roles, with Chaney playing a savage mute like those he would later bring to life in The Black Sleep and Indestructible Man.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Strange Door (1951)

Starring Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Sally Forrest, Richard Stapley, William Cottrell
Directed by Joseph Pevney
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A cruel French lord holds a young scoundrel in his castle with a vengeful scheme in mind to marry him to the daughter of the brother he despises. 

Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, this is something of a curious relic, a costume drama with horror elements, produced by Universal Pictures five years after ending their famous series of horror films.  If nothing else, it's a fabulous showcase for Laughton, who is perfectly cast as the vile Sire de Maletroit, and seems to relish the evil character, although the film doesn't quite follow through on a number of opportunities to make him really depraved.  I've read the short story, and there's a beauty in its language that isn't successfully captured in Jerry Sackheim's screenplay, and the sequence in which its young people fall in love, although intact in the film, is not particularly well acted or presented.  Nevertheless, the movie does offer a fun adventure with some worthy dark moments and fine character turns by Alan Napier and Paul Cavanagh, although Karloff seems miscast as an aged knife-brandishing servant, a role unworthy of his talents.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Silent Running (1972)

Starring Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint, Mark Persons
Directed by Douglas Trumbull
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

When the Earth decides to scrap a plan to grow vegetation in carriers in outer space, a man assigned to one of the carriers defies orders to save it from destruction.

Most notable for providing the directorial debut for Trumbull, who designed the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey and other science fiction classics, the picture is unique and different and worth seeking out.  Dern gives a memorable performance, as do the amputee actors inside the robot drones who become his primary co-stars for most of the film, and there's an elegance and beauty to their relationship.  Although Trumbull, who also supervised the special effects, doesn't offer any visuals on par with 2001, they are serviceable and appropriately secondary to the actors' performances.  The screenplay does leave a great deal unexplained to the movie's detriment, and more action or mystery in the film's second half could have added excitement, but it remains a distinctive and significant piece of work in my mind.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Climax (1944)

Starring Boris Karloff, Susanna Foster, Turhan Bey, Gale Sondergaard, Thomas Gomez
Directed by George Waggner
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A talented young opera singer lands a coveted role with a prestigious opera house, but the company's psychotic doctor has plans to silence her voice forever. 

This attempt to recapture the success of Universal's remake of Phantom Of The Opera released the prior year, was per Wikipedia a box office disappointment, and it's not difficult to see why.  Although the film returns Foster from the previous production, alongside Karloff and a talented cast, and features some pleasing music, it doesn't offer a story anywhere near as dynamic as Gaston Leroux's classic tale.  While Karloff is an inspired choice to follow Claude Rains' Phantom, the actor is not able to do much to enliven a standard psychological thriller plot.  The film is especially disappointing considering the craftsmen behind the camera- director George Waggner and screenwriter Curt Siodmak both worked on The Wolf Man, but aren't able to work the same magic here.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Tower Of London (1939)

Starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Barbara O'Neil, Ian Hunter, Vincent Price
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

Richard of Gloucester plots his ascension to the English throne through trickery and murder with the aid of a loyal executioner.

After teaming earlier in the year for Son Of Frankenstein, Rathbone, Karloff, and producer/director Lee return for this costume drama retelling the cruelties of Richard III, playing it up like a horror movie by tracking in the title music from their previous film.  It's a marvelous showcase for Rathbone as the villainous Richard, who brings across icy stares and cruel sneers as well as phony airs of sympathy and sincerity to achieve his aims.  He also, despite his debauchery, is the character to root for in the film, opposed by bland heroes played by John Sutton and Ralph Forbes.  Karloff has a marvelous opening scene in which he's introduced as the club-footed executioner sharpening an axe with a raven on his shoulder, but disappointingly doesn't have much more to do in the film than obey Richard's orders.  To be honest, this isn't among the better films of its type, but I enjoy it, and there's a wealth of character actors on display from Miles Mander to Lionel Belmore to Leo G. Carroll, and even a young Vincent Price, who would take on Rathbone's role in the 1962 remake.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Night Key (1937)

Starring Boris Karloff, J. Warren Hull, Jean Rogers, Alan Baxter, Hobart Cavanaugh
Directed by Lloyd Corrigan
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

An aging inventor, after being cheated out of the chance to implement his new burglar alarm system by the man who swindled him of his previous system, plans a scheme to discredit him.

After Universal Pictures turned their back on horror films in the mid 1930s after their prior successes, Karloff was cast in this comedy/drama, which is still somewhat enjoyable in its own right, but had to be a disappointment to his fans.  Playing an elderly scientist going blind, the actor turns in a distinguished performance, but there's not much heft to the story, nor enough original material to enliven the picture.  There's a fine supporting cast with Cavanaugh memorable as a petty thief who teams up with Karloff, Baxter as a soft-spoken but villainous gangster, and Rogers of the Flash Gordon serials as Karloff's beautiful daughter, and the film was intriguingly directed by Corrigan, who became better known as a character actor in later pictures.  However, as my friend Dan Day Jr. pointed out, it's frustrating to imagine what could have been had the studio backed Karloff in another horror picture during their glory years rather than this light entertainment. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Theseus And The Minotaur (2017)

Starring Marco Munoz, Joshua Kennedy, Jamie Trevino, Gus Kennedy, Brian Warren
Directed by Joshua Kennedy
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

After the wicked magician Minos takes the throne of Athens, and sacrifices innocent victims to a supernatural beast, the populace wait for a destined hero to deliver them from Minos' tyranny.

Perhaps Joshua Kennedy's most epic adventure, this production with a grand scale and the talented stop-motion animation of Ryan Lengyel, is a loving homage to the works of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.

Springing from the well-known tale from Greek mythology of Theseus, Kennedy makes a few changes story-wise, but all the hallmarks are still here, from the legendary beast, to the impossible maze of Minos' labyrinth, to the beautiful Ariadne who aids Theseus in his quest.  Although this story was never brought to life in a Ray Harryhausen production, Josh borrows visual and narrative elements from other Harryhausen films that bring back nostalgic memories of films like The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad among many others.  In keeping with the presentation of this classic legend, Kennedy has crafted his dialogue, although not in verse, to have a poetic quality, assisted by acclaimed author Stephen D. Sullivan who contributed to the screenplay.

The director also gets wonderful performances from his actors, including Marco Munoz as Theseus, who looks the part of the swashbuckling hero, bringing a determined stare, and a talent for swordplay to the role.  Jamie Trevino's Ariadne is given a backstory never included in the myths and brings both beauty and righteousness to her character.  Josh's father Gus Kennedy is given a wonderful part as the blinded Gregorios, bringing sensitivity and nobility to the character in a selfless portrayal, and his son has the juicy role of Minos.  With a demonic expression, a scruffy beard, and a wildness in his eyes, Kennedy presents a unique villain, assembled from aspects of the fine actors who portrayed evil masterminds in the films of Harryhausen.

I said this film might be Josh's most epic, and visually it's definitely his most appealing, with Theseus' journey depicted against the background of a vast panoramic desert, a gift to any filmmaker apparently located in Kennedy's home state of Texas.  It gives the film scope, but there's compelling photography and visual compositing on display here as well, showing the torment of Theseus and his companions by the seductive sirens of myth, and allowing Minos to turn into a being of energy jumping across the screen as Theseus attempts to battle him.  The filmmaker of course can't deliver the elaborate interior sets of a Hollywood film on his budget, but creatively uses shadow to his advantage in depicting the insides of Minos' palace and the labyrinth, which is well-suited to the dark events transpiring within.  I also greatly enjoyed the rich palette of colors in the film, with red-garbed Theseus, white-costumed Ariadne, and black-clad Minos interacting against a bright tapestry of images.

The strong visuals and epic story make a worthy foundation for the stop-motion effects that the audience has been waiting to see, with animator Ryan Lengyel delivering two unique creatures constructed by hand over armatures as Harryhausen so memorably did throughout his career.  The Stymphalion Bird has a memorably creepy appearance, and is intriguingly integrated into the story as the deliverer of the black feather that will doom a person to death by the Minotaur.  The Minotaur itself is a triumph of design, resembling artistic depictions of the creature, but with unique details like a formidable jaw of crooked teeth exposed when the beast roars.  Lengyel may not be on the same level as Harryhausen, but his animation is still very impressive, and the fact that he and Kennedy could make their two worlds come together visually on an independent movie budget is something to behold.

Some of Harryhausen's finest moments on film came accompanied by the music of talented composers like Bernard Herrmann, and although the film does not have the advantage of a score delivered by a master like Herrmann, Josh has picked some thrilling themes from classical symphonies which bring excitement to his cinematic adventure.  As a fan of film music himself, Josh knows the importance of the aural component to the visuals he's presenting, and it's wonderful to see both come together.  Of all of Josh's films, I think the soundtrack here sounds the most like a unified orchestral score, and he should be credited for his fine selections.

This may not be a new Harryhausen classic, but it's the closest thing to it many of us will see in our lifetime, with stop-motion rendered the same painstaking way Ray did, and bright and colorful characters taking us back in time to a fantasy world like those visited by Sinbad, Jason, and other fantastic heroes.  Save perfectly rendered CGI creatures without heart and soul and grungy cinematography for the box office bombs that dwell in our cineplexes.  I'll take this wonderfully realized dream of true Harryhausen fans instead.

The St. Augustine Monster (2016)

Starring Joshua Kennedy, Kat Kennedy, Gus Kennedy
Directed by Joshua Kennedy
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A doctor discovers the washed up body of a giant cephalopod, and in the course of studying it, he becomes dominated by the creature's evil mind who wants to consume the blood of the living.

Although the plot of this feature may sound inspired by films like The Little Shop Of Horrors and Donovan's Brain, and it may well have been, Kennedy has produced the film as a silent feature with a visual design paying tribute to the 1919 German expressionist classic, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.  Utilizing hand-drawn backgrounds by his mother, Ana Kennedy, in the same way that made Robert Wiene's film so memorable, Kennedy brings to life his story, apparently filmed between semesters with family and friends during his final year at Pace University.

The story of St. Augustine's monster is a true one, if lacking the supernatural overtones Kennedy adds to his narrative.  According to Wikipedia, the remains of a giant creature did wash ashore near St. Augustine, Florida in 1896, and was thought to have been a giant octopus, although later studies have concluded it might have been the remains of a whale.  Josh's creature is certainly the former, and could not have been otherwise given the young filmmaker's fondness for the eight legged marine animal.  The monster is given a three dimensional visage through cylindrical tentacles attached to the drawn body that are animated when the beast regains evil life.  Although these effects are elementary, they fit in well with the film's design and are particularly effective in the dark corners of a lighthouse that becomes the monster's lair.

Kennedy takes center stage as the doctor, who when consumed by the cephalopod's madness, takes on disturbingly obsessive characteristics, well displayed by Kennedy's rolling of his pupils back and forth, a mirthful grin, and dark makeup around his eyes.  There are visual cues back to Caligari in some sequences when Kennedy dons a dark bodysuit like that of the 1919 film's Cesare, but the actor/director brings his own characterization into the mix as well.

Josh is supported by sister Kat Kennedy, as his on-screen sister, father Gus Kennedy as an ill-fated police inspector, Aleyda Aguirre as a female victim of the doctor's evil persona, and Tom Pearson as the priest who will restore order at the film's climax.  Each play their roles convincingly with limited movement, making Josh's exaggerated gestures stand out all the more, effectively displaying his character's madness.

This may be Kennedy's shortest film, at a brief 19 minutes, but feels the perfect length, bridging an engaging narrative across limited sets with a memorable look and feel.  His musical selections are well-suited to the story and help transport us back to not only the period of the 1896 discovery, but the era of silent cinema.  It's a wonderful tribute, but an involving film all its own.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Blood Of The Zombie (1961)

Starring John McKay, Linda Ormond, Monica Davis, Clyde Kelly, Darlene Myrick
Directed by Barry Mahon
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A honeymooning couple visit the plantation he's inherited, where his cousin is plotting to murder the bride by bringing her dead brother back to life through voodoo rites.

Perhaps better known by its alternate title The Dead One, this picture has a decent zombie makeup and an effective stilted performance by Kelly as the creature to its credit, but not much else.  Static camera setups and inconsistently lit night scenes are to the film's detriment, as is Monica Davis' flat vocal delivery and over-the-top screaming as the film's villain, although that does provide some amusement and entertainment value.  A mobile camera or some more exciting editing would really have provided some much needed energy here, and the lack of that makes even the appearance of some talented New Orleans jazz bands who perform at the beginning of the picture hard to sit through.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Blob (1958)

Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A teenager and his girlfriend try to convince a small town's authorities that a growing monster that swallows people whole is genuine and threatening the town.

Although the special effects haven't aged well, this remains a charming and compelling film with memorable imagery for "The Blob" that later spawned a sequel and a remake.  The familiar message at the heart of the picture of teenagers not being respected or listened to by adults was not new when this film came out and was probably better presented in other films, but McQueen and Corsaut's performances as noble and decent young people sets the film apart.  McQueen of course went on to a distinguished career starring in some of the most highly regarded films of the 1960s and 1970s.  This was also the first of an interesting trio of science fiction pictures from director Yeaworth, followed by 4D Man and Dinosaurus!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Black Sleep (1956)

Starring Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Bela Lugosi
Directed by Reginald LeBorg
(actor & director credits courtesy IMDB.com)

A reputed surgeon fakes a young doctor's death to save him from the gallows and employs him as his assistant, but the young man objects when he learns of the doctor's cruel experiments on the living.

This film was for a long time unavailable on home video, and I had long wanted to see it, as ten years after the death of Universal's classic horror films, it reunited several of their stars, as well as LeBorg, one of Universal's directors during that period.  The movie doesn't quite recapture the fun of those pictures, and with Chaney and Lugosi playing mutes, it doesn't afford them choice roles, but I still enjoy the film, and it still offers some eerie chills.  There's a well-utilized and photographed castle set, a mysterious and foreboding musical score, and a number of scenes that would have been pretty shocking in 1956, as well as a quality performance by Basil Rathbone anchoring the film.  It's not a worthy tribute or followup to the great Universal horror films, but for me it is worthwhile entertainment, if only a shadow of what it could have been.