Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Doctor X Double Feature

Doctor X (1932)
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and and Lee Taylor
Director: Michael Courtiz
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A killer is stalking Gotham, butchering women--young and old--with a scalpel and surgeon-like precision. When the police turn their investigation toward the medical research institute operated by Dr. Xavier (Atwill), he hopes to prevent the entire institute from being tarred by scandal by conducting a scientific experiment that will identify the killer on his staff. With the moral support of his beautiful daughter (Wray) and a wisecracking crime-beat reporter (Taylor) standing by for the scoop of the decade, Xavier brings his colleagues to his isolated country house... where the murderer soon proves himself quite unwilling to submit to Xavier's experiments, but not so shy about stabbing the house guests.

"Doctor X" is a fun little film that mixes the mystery, comedy, romance, and horror genres into a bubbling cauldron of craziness. From the collection of four surgeons at Xavier's institute, each more suspicious and apparently crazy than the one before; to Xavier's creepy butler; to Xavier himself, the cast of characters here provide a rich pool of suspects. Wray and Taylor offer something attractive to look at amidst the strange collection of doctors and the bizarre, shadow-haunted scenery of the picture, with Wray presenting both radiant beauty and a very charming, very smart character. (In fact, Wray's beauty surrounded by the calculated ugliness of the rest of the film is a contrast that heightens just about every aspect of the film.

Something that will strike viewers coming to this film without foreknowledge--as I did--will be struck by the fact that instead of the expected greys and blacks, the film appears to be in sepia tones... until Wray makes her first appearance on screen, wearing a dress that's a startling, vibrant green in among the shadows and reddish-brown tones of the majority of the scenery. Later, there are other splashes of red and green; "Doctor X" was shot in an early version of Techicolor, and, while I found the reddish and/or greenish tint that was cast over everything generally tiresome, the bright splashes of concentrated color wow'ed me every time they appeared.

As a historical artifact in the development of film techniques, or just as a fun little comedy/thriller that's crammed to the brim with mad scientists, "Doctor X" is a movie that I think any lover of classic films will enjoy immensely.

The Return of Doctor X (1939)
Starring: Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, and Humphrey Bogart
Director: Vincent Sherman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After being fired from his job for making up a false news story about finding a famous actress murdered--who shows up quite alive and intent on suing the paper--journalist Walter Garnett (Morris) turns to a close friend and surgeon (Morgan) in an attempt to figure out how he could have mistaken a live woman for a dead body. The answer he finds is stranger than anything he could imagine, and he soon finds himself up to his neck in creepy MDs, including the strange Dr. Quense (Bogart).

"The Return of Doctor X" has nothing in common with the original "Doctor X" film, except that they were produced by the same company. There is no character or story similarity, despite the presence of murderous medical professionals and a character with the last name of "Xavier", as well as a wise-cracking reporter character. However, where "Doctor X" was a comedy with heavy doses of suspense and a touch of horror, "The Return" is a straight-forward horror movie with a heavy dose of comedy. The first movie was also far more impressive in its camerawork and set design, and this film, while competently filmed, suffers greatly by comparison.

This is a decent enough flick, if completely forgettable. Big-time Humphrey Bogart fans may get a kick out of seeing him in a role quite different from anything else he did during his career, but otherwise, this is the kind of movie to load in a multi-disk DVD player for use as background noise during a Halloween party.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lugosi is the dark, beating heart of
'The Invisible Ghost'

The Invisible Ghost (aka "The Phantom Killer") (1941)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Clarence Muse, John McGuire, and Polly Ann Young
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Charles Kessler (Lugosi) is a widely admired man who, known only to his faithful manservant Evans (Muse) and his daughter Virginia (Young) suffers minor bouts with insanity during which he thinks he is still living with his beloved wife, who vanished years ago. However, Kessler's insanity is far deeper and far deadlier than anyone imagines; his wife seemingly appears outside his window at night, and the sight of her sends him into a trance during which he committs horrendous strangulation murders. When Virginia's fiance (McGuire) is executed for one of the murders, his twin brother Paul (also McGuire) arrives in town intent on finding the true killer.

"The Invisible Ghost" is another one of those films where I can see lots of potential that buried under a badly written script. The idea of a decent man so filled with grief and rage that he goes into murderous trances is pretty neat, but in this case the question of exactly how crazy Kessler is undermind within the first ten minutes of the film. (There's a "big revelation" that should have been saved for much later on.) Further, the dialogue (and its delivery) feels more suitable for a stage play than a movie... and it's delivered by actors whose performances mostly leave a lot to be desired.

The two exceptions to my negative comments about the actors are Clarence Muse and Bela Lugosi.

In the case of Muse, he plays Kessler's butler and manservant, but he projects an intelligence, dignity, and sensitivity that is lacking in just about every other character in the film; he's also the one actor who never comes across as unintentionally funny in the film... his laugh lines are true laugh lines, and they're delivered with excellent timing.

Lugosi also gives an engaging performance. Although the man seemed to lack the ability to pick decent projects to perform in, he often managed to make the most of the roles he did. In this case, he shows his acting ability by going through several emotions, and even completely transforming himself by doing nothing but changing his facial expressions. On the downside of his performance in "The Invisible Ghost", Lugosi is unintentionally HILARIOUS when Kessler enters his murderous trances. It takes some of the horror and tragedy away from the story when giggling viewers are trying to decide what Kessler resembles most in his murderous state: Kharis the Mummy without his bandages, or a spastic retard shuffling home after riding the short bus.

One strong aspect of the film that I must mention is that it is beautifully lit. The technical crew who worked on it really knew their stuff--the many candle-lit scenes are very well-handled with spotlights that properly follow the actors carrying the candleholders, and lighting is used consistently with great effect to underscore the drama and tension. Further, there's some very creative camerawork on display. (On the downside, the drama and tension is undermind by a truly awful score and the aforementioned bad acting.)

I think "The Invisible Ghost" is worth watching for Muse and Lugosi's performances, but the bad definately outweighs the good.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Greatest chiller of the silent movie era?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover
Director: Robert Weine
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A sideshow performer (Krauss) and an eternal sleeper with prophetic powers (Veidt) engulf a small town in a wave of nightmarish terror and death.

Anyone who's taken a film history class has almost certainly seen "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". If you haven't seen it, and if you consider yourself a fan of horror movies, or a movie buff in general, you absolutely must see this movie. It is one of the most chilling horror movies ever made.

It might be a bit slow in the wind-up from the point of view of the modern audience, and you might be a bit amused by the Dr. Suess-like set design of the village in which the movie takes place... but you'll soon be rivited by the stark moods this film invokes through the sharp use of contrasts, the spooky appearance of the actors, and the brilliantly concieved sets. Dr. Suess will be very far from your mind, unless you want to view the film as "Horton Has a Psychotic Break and Hallucinates."

Although dating from 1919, this film still stands nearly unmatched it its ability to draw the audience into a disturbing, twisted world where ultimately nothing can be taken for granted or assumed to be true. And, depending on how you choose to interpert the very effective twist ending, it may well be a world from which there is no escape.

Every filmmaker has certainly seen this movie. It's too bad so few of them seem to have taken away any lessons from it.

'Essential Tales of the Zombie' is an accurate title for a fine collection of comics

Essential Tales of the Zombie (Marvel Comics, 2007)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, Chris Claremont,
Artists: Pablo Marcos, Alfredo Alcala, John Buscema, Bill Everett, Gene Colan,
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"Essential Tales of the Zombie" is one of an ongoing series of 500-page+ collections of reprinted material from the past 30-40 years of Marvel Comics' output. The material in this book originally appeared in some of Marvel's black-and-white magazines from the mid-Seventies. It presents dozens of tales of voodoo and walking dead, the majority of them taken from the 10-issue run of "Tales of Zombie." Also sprinkled throughout the book are some of the best text features from the magazine, such as reviews of zombie movies and articles about voodoo.

It should be noted that nowhere in "Essential Tales of the Zombie" will you find walking corpses of the flesh-eating, post-Romero kind. The undead here are mostly the result of voodoo curses and similar magics. For me, this classic feel is refreshing in this day and age of rampant splatter and dismemberment.

The most worthwhile material in the book is the ongoing saga of the Zombie from the title. It's the story of Simon Garth, a captain of industry and control freak, who is murdered and reanimated as a zombie. Painfully aware of his condition, yet helpless to do anything about it, he becomes the undead slave of a series of different masters, controlled by the mystical Medallions of Damballah.

The stories of Simon Garth are top-notch, classic horror comics, which is not surprising, given they were penned by Steve Gerber when he was at the height of his creative powers. The manage to present social commentary, tragedy, chills, and poetic justice to the bad guys, often-times within the confines of the same story. The narration may get a bit purple at times, but the power of the stories shine through. Plus, the two-part tale that sees Simon Garth finally gain the peace of the grave is an excellent bit of writing by Gerber's successor on the strip, Tony Isabella. It is a perfect end to the story of a man who was forced onto a journey of discovery and redemption.

Although Bill Everett and John Buscema drew the first three tales featuring the Zombie, the art on the Simon Garth saga is mostly by Pablo Marcos. Alfredo Alcala also handles the art on a couple of the stories. Despite the vast difference in styles between these four artists, the mood remains consistently oppressive, dark, and spooky, and all do a great job capturing the macabre atmosphere of the Louisiana swamps and Haitian back-woods that the Zombie spends most of his time. (Alcala, Buscema, and Everett happen to be three of my favorite artists, and they do fine work here.)

Aside from the stories chronicalling Simon Garth's journey, "Tales of the Zombie" contains two stories with Brother Voodoo (a superhero who, as his name implies, gains his powers from voodoo rites) and a couple dozen short horror stories. The Brother Voodoo stories are... well, they're Brother Voodoo stories. The character always seemed a bit goofy to me, and he's true to from in both stories. (One wraps up the plotline from his "Strange Tales" appearances, and it was nice to finally know how that all ended, but the character still doesn't do much for me.) The shorts are mostly your standard twist-ending sort of tales that have been around in comics since the 50s... the ones that once filled the pages of "Creepy", "House of Mystery" and "Psycho". Althoguh they are all excellently written and illustrated, these run the gamut of quality from ho-hum to masterful.

Rounding out the book is an interesting time capsule of table of contents from each issue of "Tales of the Zombie", selected text pieces about voodoo and the occult, a two-part short story from Doug Moench, and some reviews of movies featuring zombies. The movie reviews were of particular interest to me (big surprise there, eh?) and there were even a few mentioned that I hadn't heard of! These magazine articles made for surprsingly good reading... although I wished a few more of had been included. I would have liked to read the obit of Bill Everett that was mentioned on one of the ToCs.)

"Tales of the Zombie" is an unusual entry in the "Essential" series, but one that lives up to its title. Fans of horror comics won't regret spending money on this one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

'The Corpse Vanishes' will make you appreciate your family

The Corpse Vanishes (aka "The Case of the Missing Brides") (1942)
Starring: Luana Walters, Bela Lugosi, Elizabeth Russell and Angelo
Director: Wallace Fox
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Certifiable madman and scientific genius Prof. Lorenz (Lugosi) is placing beautiful, virgin brides into deathlike states at the altar with specially created orchids. He then steals the bodies and drains glandular fluids from them to create a concoction that keeps is even crazier wife looking youthful. His scientific fountain of youth is threatened when society columnist and wanna-be hardnosed reporter Patricia Hunter (Walters) grows suspicious and pays him a visit at his isolated home. Will she bring in the scoop of the year, or will she herself become a victim?

"The Corpse Vanishes" is a pretty standard mad scientist vs. plucky girl reporter lightweight horror movie... except for the bizarre group of characters that make up Lorenz's household.

From Lorenz's wife (who sleeps in a coffin for no apparent reason) to the house-keeper (a doomsaying withered old hag), her bestial son (who likes fondling the comotose brides Lorenz brings home, not to mention our heroine when she stays the night at the house), to her midget son (who serves as valet, butler, and Lorenz's chief henchman), to Lorenz himself (who at one moment refers to them as his "strange family" and the next moment is threatening to kill them... not to mention the whole abducting of brides thing), this is the weirdest household this side of the Manson Family.

No matter how freaky your family is, if you watch this film before going to celebrate a holiday with them, you will be able to say to yourself, "Eh... they could be worse."

Aside from the Lorenz household, everything else is pretty much stock here--including our heroine and the bland love interest she picks up--but the fast-paced story keeps things lively and moving.

Lugosi gives a standard performance. Although he has quite a bit of screen time, he doesn't have alot do to, except to be a centerpiece around which other, stranger characters orbit.

'Horror Hotel' has lots of amosphere but few sparks

Horror Hotel (aka "City of the Dead") (1960)
Starring: Venetia Stevenson, Christopher Lee, and Patricia Jessel
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Nan (Stevenson) decides to spend her Winter Break working on a research project involving witches, her professor (Lee) urges her to travel to a small New England village that has a rich history of witchcraft. Once there, she discovers that the fog-bound hamlet is crawling with evil witches and Satanists (both alive and undead).

"Horror Hotel" has a few nice scares, a couple of genuinely chilling moments, and nice performances by its stars (with Jessel being particularly excellent in a dual role as innkeeper and evil undead witch), but the most constant feature of the film is tedium. The fog-shrouded village and its decaying cemetary are rich with atmosphere, but the pay-offs of that atmosphere are too few, and I often felt myself wishing that the film would get on with it.

In final analysis, "Horror Hotel" is a fabulously atmospheric movie, but the filmmakers are then unable to fully capitalize on that atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Two Faces of Vampirella

One of the most longest lasting icons of horror is the comic book character Vampirella. She may have fallen on hard times of late--with publisher Harris instituting all sorts of arbitrary changes in a desperate attempt to reverse the trend of ever-dwindling sales figures--but some things stay pretty much the same.

Here's a drawing of Vampirella by the first artist to ever paint her 40 years ago, for the cover of "Vampirella" issue #1 in 1969, Frank Frazetta.

And here's a drawing by one of the artist who has painted some of the most celebrated modern portraits of her, Joe Jusko.

Happy 40th birthday, Vampirella! You don't look a day over 28!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dracula returns to menace small-town America

The Return of Dracula (aka "The Curse of Dracula" and "The Incredible Vanishing Man") (1958)
Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wyngraf, Virginia Vincent and Gage Clarke
Director: Paul Landres
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Dracula (Lederer) escapes to America by murdering a Czech artist and assuming his identity. He settles in a small California town and sets his sights on corrupting pure-hearted young girls and turning them into vampires.

"The Return of Dracula" is a vampire movie that rises far above its low budget thanks to a good script, a decent cast, and some clever touches on the part of the director. Francis Lederer (who plays Dracula) may not be a Dracula in the class of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi, but he holds his own here. He's comparable to--and even a little better than--Lon Chaney Jr.

While one is always hardpressed to describe a vampire movie as "realistic", this one comes close. The characters are all very real-seeming and performed with great skill by the actors. Particularly noteworthy are the high-school girlfriend/girlfriend characters of Tim and Rachel (portrayed by Norma Eberhardt and Ray Stricklyn), as their relationship and behavior reminded me of my own high school love-life... either things were really racy in this movie, my life was really tame in the 1980s, or things haven't change that much for active kids in the real world, despite what pop culture and politicians would have us believe. These characters seem very real throughout the picture, up and including the way in which they ultimately come face-to-face with the full might of the vampire.

The film also has several unexpected moments of artful creepiness, including one of the spookiest vampire seduction scenes ever filmed. Dracula's first victim is Jennie, a sick blind girl (Virginia Vincent) who can see him in her mind's eye as he corrupts her and devours her soul. Jennie also gets one of the creepiest vampire ressurection scenes ever filmed, as well as a very neat death scene. (The cinematography in this movie is its weakest element, but there is a shot of the vampiric Jennie flitting through the graveyard that's very beautiful. Jennie's death-by-stake moments later is also very startling, due to a bit of Hollywood trickery. I won't go into details, because the effect is one that has to be unexpected for it to have its full and starteling impact.)

Like in most vampire movies, the demise of the master vampire is somewhat anti-climactic, but Dracula's death in this film is not as embarrassing as some of the deaths he suffered in various Hammer flicks. At least here he is done in partially by his own evil deeds instead of by complete accident (like when Dracula dies by thorn bush in "The Satanic Rites of Dracula").

If you're a fan of classic horror films, I recommend you seek out "The Return of Dracula". Francis Lederer may not have been the best choice to play Dracula, but the great supporting cast makes up for his slight shortcomings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not much mummy action in this early horror film.

The Eyes of the Mummy (1918)
Starring: Pola Negri, Harry Leidtke, Emil Jannings and Max Laurence
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Albert Wendland (Leidtke) rescues Ma (Negri) from Radu (Jannings), a maniac who kidnapped her and who has been passing her off as a living mummy in an Egyptian tomb. The girl finds fame and fortune as the artist's model and a cabaret dancer in a major European city. However, Radu pursues them, intent on claiming what is his through any means necessary.

The Eyes of the Mummy (aka "Eyes of the Mummy Ma")(1922)
"The Eyes of the Mummy" has been touted by some as the first mummy movie. I can't help but wonder if those commentators actually bothered watching it, because there is even less mummy action here than there is in Universal's 1932 "The Mummy" and no supernatural element at all.

Or is there?

There are hints in the film that Radu is more than just a scammer, kidnapper and rapist. In one scene, he seems to appear in spirit-form in Ma's bedroom, and he later commands her through nothing more than the power of his mind. What might these scenes mean?

A generous and imaginative viewer could take these elements and combine them with the story Ma tells for having been dragged from the riverbank by Radu and waking up in the tomb as proof that the spirit of an ancient Egyptian queen dwells within the girl, brought back to life by Radu through magic--her being dragged away from the river was her being brought back from the spirit world to this one.

A less-generous viewer might say that the movie is the cinematic equvilent of an inkblot and little more than a poorly defined melodrama that features a loosely stitched-together selection of gothic fiction elements tossed in with no more thought beyond "well, this'll creep 'em out!"

Whatever the case, "The Eyes of the Mummy" is an unevenly paced movie that never quite manages to invoke enough horror or suspense to make it truly entertaining; some scenes become better when you run the DVD at 2x speed, a hidden advantage to silent movies. The acting is decent (even if you're one of the people who can't stand the acting styles of early cinema) and stars Emil Jannings and Pola Negri are especially fun to watch. Negri's exotic dances are more snicker-inducing to modern viewers than they are sexy, but she shows herself to be both a good actress, dancer and stunt woman--watch for that fall down the stairs near the end of the movie!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Does evil or madness move 'The Blancheville Monster'?

The Blancheville Monster (aka "Horror") (1963)

Starring: Gerard Tichy, Joan Hills, Leo Anchorez, Richard Davis and Helga Line
Director: Alberto De Martino
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A young noblewoman (Hills) returns to her family estate to find her older brother (Tichy) has replaced all the familiar servants with newcomers, including a suspicious new family doctor (Anchorez). She soon learns that her brother is attempting to hide the fact their father has gone insane and is now bent on murdering his own daugther before she turns 21 in a few days. Can her lover (Davis) stop the madman, or uncover the even darker truths about the Blancheville family before it is too late?

"The Blancheville Monster" is a straight-forward gothic romance with horror overtones and just enough twists to keep it interesting. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe stories like "The Oblong Box" (read it here ) and Roger Corman films like "The Terror" (review here) and "The Pit and the Pendulum (review here) will find this film enjoyable. However, it is far from perfect, as it suffers from a great deal of padding in the form of long walks through the haunted grounds of the Blancheville estate.

I'm giving the film a generous Six Rating, based to a large extent on the build-up to the end. I thought i had the story all figured out before the halfway mark, but I wasn't quite right. While the twist was nothing earthshattering, it was clever enough and in perfect keeping with the genre and everything that had happened previously in the film.