Saturday, January 30, 2010

A monarch rests uneasily in 'The Royal Bed'

The Royal Bed (1931)
Starring: Lowell Sherman, Mary Astor, Anthony Bushell, Nance O'Neil, Robert Warick, Gilbert Emery, and Alan Roscoe
Director: Lowell Sherman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The kindhearted and reluctant king of a small nation (Sherman) is forced to start weilding his power when power-hungry and corrupt ministers in his government (Roscoe and Warick) bring the country to the brink of revolution and concoct a scheme to marry off the king's daughter (Astor) to the prince of a neighboring kingdom.

"The Royal Bed" is an interesting look at the ideal of what members of a noble or royal class should be like. Lowell Sherman's down-to-earth King Eric VIII may want to do nothing more with his time than play checkers with his butler, but when push-comes-to-shove, he steps up to his responsibilities and takes charge. He is also willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for the inherited responsibilities that come with his title and he is willing to put the safety and security of the people ahead of his own.

The same can be said Eric's shrewish wife (effectively played by Nance O'Neil), although her acceptance of the burden of royalty at the expense of personal happiness has caused her to become bitter and she takes her frustrations out on her family and servants... although, ultimately, like her husband, she puts the needs of the country ahead of her own. (Her bitterness causes her to constantly demand respect and obedience from those around her, and this causes her to ally herself with elements in her kingdom that do not have the best interest of the people at heart.)

Finally, the film contrasts King Eric against the worst kind of nobles, the ones who feel entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want, and who are more interested in expanding their own power than what is good for the people they lead and government. In the end, the king is able to outmaneuver them because he is in touch with the people and because he understands not only how government is supposed to function, but because he understands his place in it.

All in all, it's a nice little fantasy, and I'm sure there would be fewer revolutions in the world if royals were like King Eric and his family.

On the acting front, the two leads--Lowell Sherman and Mary Astor--to their usual fine jobs. Sherman's style isn't quite as modern as I've observed it to be in other films, but he shows a good sense of comic timing. No one in the cast embarrasses themselves, but they underscore the stage-play feel of this movie far more obviously than Astor and Sherman. (In fact, I doubt much was changed in order to adapt this film from the play it was based on; you can even tell where the acts break.)

Speaking of the script, it's a fun and breezy little effort that actually put me in mind of Marx Brothers movies like "A Day at the Races". If you were to remove the Marx Brothers' slapstick set-pieces and musical numbers from those films, you'd be left with farces featuring the same tone and pacing as "The Royal Bed".

If you enjoy classic farces, I think this film is worth seeking out. The copy I viewed had some audio problems beyond the usual--such as sudden and inexplicable changes in volume--but with a film this old and neglected, there aren't going to be many options around. (I screened the one issued by good old Alpha Video.)

Zombies stalk the Wild, Wild West

Undead or Alive (2007)
Starring: Jamie Denton, Chris Kattan, Navi Rawat, Matt Besser, Chris Coppala and Leslie Jordan
Director: Glasgow Phillips
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Two hapless outlaws (Denton and Kattan) team up with Geronimo's niece (Rawat) to escape an Indian curse that's rapidly turning southwest America into a land of undead, flesh-eating zombies. All the while, an undead corrupt sheriff (Besser) and his zombie posse is hot on their trail.

"Undead or Alive" is a fun zombie-western comedy (or "zombedy" as its referred to in the opening credits). It's well-acted, well-paced, and well-written with a surprise ending that, although you're going to suspect where the film is going to end up, you won't know if the filmmakers are actually going to go there until the final scene.

Fans of zombie movies and westerns alike will find alot to like about this movie. Some of the anachronistic aspects of the verbiage of a couple of characters may seem a little grating... but, like they said in the opening song of "Mystery Science Theater 3000", just remind yourself it's a movie and relax. The anachronisms are funny if you take them in the right spirit.

Saturday Scream Queen: Brinke Stevens

Brinke Stevens is one of the great B-movie scream queens of the past three decades, appearing in over 120 horror and sci-fi films (and a handful of comedies and softcore porn entries) since 1982 after giving up a career in marine biology for one as an model and actress.

Born in 1954, Stevens' continues to appear in horror films, managing to successfully transition from lethal sexpot into more "mature" roles, overcoming the age hurdle that has ended so many careers, or forced actresses behind the camera and into other production roles.

Friday, January 29, 2010

What is the deadly truth behind 'Charade'?

Charade (1963)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy
Director: Stanley Donen
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

'Reggie' Lampert (Hepburn), a quirky young American living in Paris, has her world turned upside down when her husband is murdered and she learns that he wasn't all who she believed him to be. Worse, three thugs (including Coburn and Kennedy) are stalking her, insisting that she has the $250,000 that her dead husband stole from them. Only the charming Peter Joshua (Grant) and the mysterious Paris CIA Station Chief (Matthau) can help her... but will they? When a quarter of a million dollars are up for grabs, can anyone be trusted?

For many years, I would catch pieces of "Charade" on television, and I was convinced that it had to one of Alfred Hitchcock's movies--one of his best, in fact. It isn't, of course, but it is a far sight more "Hitchcockian" that the vast majority of films that critics like to apply that label to. Its fast-patter dialogue, its mixture of intrigue, mystery, comedy, and romance is very reminicent of great Hitchcock movies like "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes".

Hepburn is as gorgeous and energetic as ever as 'Reggie' Lampert, and her acting skills are on fine display here. Cary Grant is likewise up to form in an excellent performance, even if this film was made during the twilight of his career; his ability to be charming and menacing at the same time comes into play nicely in a couple of scenes here, and keep your eyes open for the moment when he mokcingly mimics Hepburn's "surprised look". (Another very remarkable thing about Grant's part in this movie is the acknowledgement that he is old enough to be her father, and that he initially keeps her at arm's length when she aggressively persues him in a romantic way. 'Reggie' clearly has a thing for older men, but Peter Joshua has enough class to respect their age difference. How many other Hollywood leading men would accept a role like that? Given what is standard fare in movies, not many!)

In addition to great performances by its stars, the film sports a spectacular supporting cast, with George Kennedy as a hulking, hook-handed maniac, and Walter Matthau's quirky American agent being particularly noteworthy, and an intelligently constructed story full of sparkeling dialogue, clever twists, lots of laughs and thrills, and a climactic chase and confrontation that definately makes this "the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made."

Rounding out this perfect package is the score by Henry Mancini. The 'Charade Theme' is perhaps the best tune he ever wrong, and its heard in many different and clever permutations throughout the film.

"Charade" is a true classics, and it's a film that should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they can properly mix comedic and thriller elements in a film. (The blender they show in the beginning of the original 1963 preview for the film is a great analogy... the elements of a romantic comedy and a thriller have been blended together here in a seamless, perfect whole. Movies like this are all too rarely made these days.)

It's also more than worth seeing for an excellent performance by Hepburn, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

'Sundown' is lit up by gorgeous Gene Tierney

Sundown (1941)
Starring: Bruce Cabot, Gene Tierney, and George Sanders
Director: Henry Hathaway
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As World War II rages, District Commisioner Crawford (Cabot) and British Army officer Major Coombs (Sanders) get wind of a plot by the Nazis to arm violent North African tribes and set them upon the Allied forces. An exotic, mysterious caravan mistress (Tierney) arrives at their isolated outpost, but is she a friend, or is it her extensive trading network that the Nazis are using to move their weapons shipments?

"Sundown" is a fairly run-of-the-mill drama, with the steadfast British colonial troops and their valiant native allies standing fast against those who would bring low Britain. It's got a more interesting cast of characters than many of these films--with the liberal minded Crawford standing outin particular--and the cast is mostly excellent. The film also benefits from a more exotic locale than many of these films, and the gorgeous photography takes full advantage of this, as does the script. (One bit of repetition that made me scratch my head: why did the bad guys always get gunned down in pools of water?)

Aside from the great camera work, another reason to see "Sundown" is the presence of the absolutely gorgeous Gene Tierney. She truly is one of the most beautiful actresses to ever appear on film, and she doesn't do a whole lot more than walk around looking exotic and gorgeous here. If you haven't seen Tierney do majestically beautiful, you need to see this movie.

Picture Perfect Wednesday with Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy started her career playing femme fatals in silent films and early talkies, with this phase of her career culminating in her role as Fu Manchu's sadomasochistic daughter, Fah Lo See. She eventually made a transition to romantic comedies. Her most famous role is that of Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" series.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Corpulent Seagal faces 'Black Dawn'

Black Dawn (aka "The Foreigner 2") (2005)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Tamara Davies, Nicholas Davidoff, and Timothy Carhart
Director: Alexander Gruszynski
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When CIA agent Amanda Stuart (Davies) sees her supposedly dead mentor Jonathan Cold (Seagal) show up with a armsdealer meeting with a crazed Muslim rebel (Davidoff), she knows something very big and very bad is coming down. But little did she know that soon she and Jonathan would be battling both terrorists and renegade CIA agents bent on detonating a nuke in downtown Los Angeles.

"Black Dawn" is absolutely, totally predictable; it's decently acted, with okay stunts, but there's nothing you haven't seen done better elsewhere. What's more, the cast is too small for there to ever be any doubt as to the identitiy of the traitor within the CIA. Then, to add insult to injury, we don't even get treated to decent fight scenes.

I don't know if Seagal is too old or too fat (and I know I'm not one to criticize someone for packing on the pounds come middle-age... I've turned into a true porker over the past five years) or if he may have been sick during the two-week schedule I assume this cheap quickie must have had, but not only were all three of the potential fight scenes over virtually before they started, they were done using stand-ins!

Yes, iconic Akido tough guy Seagal--the guy who in an interview on the DVD of "Black Dawn" talks about how he was in hundreds of fights before he lost one--doesn't do a single one of his fight scenes in this film. In fact, the stand-ins aren't built like Seagal (one doesn't even have similar hair, and we're treated to several seconds of the back of his head!) and there doesn't even seem to be an attempt to match the style he used when he DID do his own fight scenes.

I wonder if "Black Dawn" spells the end of Seagal's career. He's not really much of an actor, and if he can't do his own fight scenes, what's left? Maybe it's time for him to move behind the cameras and let others star in films that he produces? (On the other hand, he could well have been sick. There are several scenes where he seems to be carrying himself strangely, particularly with the way he crosses his arms.)

Sheesh... I seem to be going on about Seagal... but that's because I ran out of things to say about the movie in the second paragraph, and because I think he's done some pretty good action flicks (like "Hard to Kill", "Under Seige", "Half Past Dead" and even "The Foreigner"), and it's a bit sad to see him go out on such a pathetic note, if that is indeed what's happening.

If you want to see a fairly generic, relatively low-budget action flick with some sorry blue-screen shots, you want to pick up "Black Dawn." If you're looking for a good Steven Seagal flick, stay away from this one. You'll be very dissapointed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's Blade... in black and white

Blade: Black and White (Marvel Comics)
Story: Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Christopher Golden, et. al.
Art: Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Gene Colan, et. al.
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics published one of the finest horror comics series, ever... "Tomb of Dracula." In issue #10 of that series, writer Marv Wolfman added a tough-talking, black vampire-slayer to the line-up of Dracula's enemies--Blade. A rough-and-tumble streetfighter, this character's trademark was a bandoleer of wooden daggers with which he dispatched vampires with unrivaled efficiency and brutality.

A couple years after his initial appearance, Marvel Comics gave Blade his own solo-series in their "mature" black-and-white comics magazines. The series moved from title to title, as Marvel gradually whittled their commercially unsuccesul magazine line down to nothing, but the lack of readership wasn't the fault of the "Blade" series... those pages were some kick-ass vampire tales (in every sense of the phrase).

The main plotline of the stories collected in "Blade: Black and White" was written by Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. It sees Blade pitted against an emerging vampire organization that calls itself "The Legion." These vampires have chosen to target Blade where he lives--by killing his friends, his loved ones, and framing him for murder. It's only with the help of Katherine Fraser, a psychic Scotland Yard detective (another 'Tomb of Dracula' supporting castmember, featured mostly in the 'Giant-sized Tomb of Dracula' series') that Blade will even have a prayer of clearing his name.

This storyline occupies about 2/3rds of the book, and it illustrated primarily by the vastly underappreciated Tony DeZuniga, with some assistance from Rico Rival. The illustrations are top-notch, bringing the sort of gritty reality to the proceedings that the Blade character requires.

The collection is rounded with three additional 'Blade' tales. Two are illustrated by Gene Colan--one dates from the 1970s and in it we see Blade for the first time unable to bring himself to kill vampires... and that hestitation may cost him his life! The second tale was a one-shot issue scripted by novelist Christopher Golden that teamed Blade with his old partner, Hannibal King (who, like Blade, is a far better character in his original comic book incarnation that he is in "Blade" flicks) to take on an emerging vampire threat in New Orleans and confront ghosts from their past. Both tales are great reads, but I think Colan's art has started to degrade a bit. (It doesn't help matteers that the second tale was inked by someone who does't look to be a good match for Colan's pencils.)

Sandwiched between the two Colan stories is a pathetic little 14-pager that 's got bad art, a bad script, and doesn't really fit in with anything else that's been printed about the Blade character. Further, the way Blade is presented is closer to the movies than the comics. I recommend skipping that story entirely, or reading it after you've read the rest. (It should be placed in that order anyway, as there's a reference on the very first page to Blade being in New Orleans.)

"Blade: Black and White" is a collection of some fine horror comics (with one noted exception) from a time when vampires were monsters and men's men were devoted to their destruction. If you like horror comics and vampire tales, I recommend this book. (I'd leave the movies for when you have seen everything else interesting at the videostore. They are but pale reflections of the original source material.)

Note: The illo at the top of this article is by the great Gene Colan. To see more of his artwork, visit his webiste by clicking here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sometimes, the murdered won't stay dead

Dominique is Dead
(aka "Dominique" and "The Avenging Spirit") (1978)

Starring: Cliff Robertson, Jean Simmons, Jenny Agutter, Simon Ward, and Ron Moody
Director: Michael Anderson
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After David Ballard (Robertson) finally murders his rich wife (Simmons), he becomes the center of a series of ever-stranger events. Worse, his wife, Dominique, still appears to be roaming the halls of their mansion. Is it her vengeful ghost back from beyond the grave, or is something even more sinister unfolding?

"Dominique is Dead" is an atmospheric little gothic thriller that's not terribly original in the way it unfolds, but the cast delivers such good performances and the solid story moves along fast enough (with complications delivered at just the right moments) that it is still an enjoyable experience if you like this kind of stories.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The past comes a'slashing on the 'Terror Train'

Terror Train (1980)
Staring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, and Derek McKinnon
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

On New Year's Eve, a murderer is stalking and killing a group of college students onboard a moving train that's host to a costume party. As the victim's pile up, Alana (Curtis) discovers the link between them... and realizes that she is likely to be next.

"Terror Train" is a cross between "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Halloween" (the original... not the turdish 2007 remake). It's got a great setting from which a host of possible victims can't escape, it's got gory kills, and it's got a killer who is moving freely among his (or her) unsuspecting victims, and the killer's identity is even one that be puzzled out by an attentive viewer before the characters realize it, so it's a movie that plays fair like any good mystery does. It's a film that should please those who like lots of suspense and mystery in their slasher-movies, although there are a couple of gory moments to keep the other half happy, as well. (Like most early--and superior--slasher-films, however, most of killing happens off-screen and is left mostly to the imagination of the audience).

Three primary elements combine to make this film the successful thriller that it is.

First, it features some great acting and sound design. The way the actors occassionally sway while moving through the train hallways and the everpresent train-sounds lend a great deal of believability to the film, more than is found in many movies set on trains where little details like uneven and constant motion beneath the actors' feet is often forgotten by sloppy directors.

Second, it features some fine performances by actors who are working with a meaty script. Ben Johnson as the firm-handed train conductor, and Jamie Lee Curtis as yet another "Survivor Girl" (to borrow a bit of terminology from "Behind the Mask") both get to fight the mad killer and be heroes. Curtis also gives what I feel is her best performance in any of her early films, including "Halloween" and "Halloween II". She's also positively gorgeous to look at throughout the movie. Hart Bochner also takes a turn as a truly dispicable character whom the viewer is almost glad to see get his.

Finally, the film features some great lighting and even better cinematography. These help to make the train set seem more real, but they also play a big part in making it frightening and in making help seem very far away when characters are confronted by the killer, even if it might be just a few yards along in the next train car.

Although rumor has it that director Roger Spottiswoode is embarrassed over having made this movie, I think "Terror Train" is an underappreciated movie that is worth seeking out.

It's Cowboys vs. Robots and Mole People!

Radio Ranch
(aka "Men With Steel Faces") (1940)

Starring: Gene Autry, Betsy King Ross, Frankie Darro, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, and Frank Glendon
Directors: Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Western singer Gene Autry (Autry) and his teenaged friends (Ross and Darro) find themselves caught up in the middle of the machinations of a scretive, highly advanced underground civilization led by Queen Tika (Christy), a group of crooked scientists led by Prof. Beetson (Glendon) trying to ruin Autry's career so they can mine the land of Radio Ranch for the rare mineral Radium, and Tika's rebellious high priest, Argo (Oakman).

"Radio Ranch' is the sort of bizarre mix of pulp-magazine science fiction, singing cowboys, clever kids, and naked villiany that only children (or those with the hearts of children) can enjoy. A condensed version of a 12-part serial titled "Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire", this is a entertaining bit of nonsense that totally collapses if you think about the plot elements in the slightest. (Why can't the people of underground Murania breath surface air, but Autry & Friends have no problem breathing in Murania is but one of many questions that occured to me while watching.)

Despite many gaping logic holes (and three too many Gene Autry musical performances) this film remained an entertaining until the very end where the story went completely off the rails. I understand why the creators would want to wrap the story up in a neat little package, but I was dismayed they felt the need to go as far as they did. It's a fun romp and a crazy mix of genres that must be seen to be believed. Just know, that there's a part to the ending that will seem excessive.

'Perfect Stranger' should remain unknown

Perfect Stranger (2007)
Starring: Halle Berry, Giovanni Ribisi, and Bruce Willis
Director: James Foley
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

An investigative reporter (Berry) goes undercover at a top ad agency to prove that its face man Harrison Hill (Willis) murdered her best friend. But can the truth be discoverd when the investigation is mired in hidden agendas?

"Perfect Strangers" is a thriller that is completely devoid of tension, partly because the viewer is never convinced that the supposed murderer is all that dangerous and partly because we're not given a reason to like any of the characters enough to care whether they too get poisoned with an overdose of belladonna.

To add insult to injury, the films lazily written--to the point where every character on screen even sounds alike--and it's got one of those annoying, unnessecary twist-endings that in a desperate attempt to breathe some life and excitement into the film only manages to underscore how haphazard and badly executed it is. (I will grant that it's an ending better supported by what has gone before than in other films, but it's still false, hollow and a bit of a cheat. It's made more of a cheat because of the audience-manipulating flashbacks that appear throughout the film; I despise this movie even more for its refusal to play fair with the viewer and provide ligitimate clues so we can "play along" in solving the mystery at its core and instead feeding us distortions.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bullock is damaged cop in 'Murder by Numbers'

Murder By Numbers (2002)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Pitt
Director: Barbet Shroeder
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of sociopathic teenagers (Gosling and Pitt) plan and commit the perfect murder, but their carefully made plans threaten to unravel when homicide detective Cassie Merriweather (Bullock), driven by personal demons, refuses to accept the too-pat solution to the case. Will a detective on the brink of a nervous breakdown find the guilty parties behind a perfectly staged crime?

The only really good part about this film is Bullock. The script is rather weak and predictable--I've seen a "Jane Doe" episode on the Hallmark Channel that held more suspense than "Murder By Numbers"--and one is left wondering why the Gosling and Pitt characters seem to be liked by anyone at their school they're so creepy and repulsive. Both also give uninteresting and completely flat performances, although that is the case of everyone in the film, except Bullock.

This movie shows that Bullock really CAN act, as she more than once displays some very subtle emotional shifts with nothing but facial expressions. What's more, she really plays against the kind of character she is usually cast as... Cassie Merriweather may once have been the girl next door, but a terrible secret in her past changed that long ago. It's a shame that the movie she is giving such a fine performance in really isn't all that good.

"Murder By Numbers" is a so-so police procedural mystery flick that isn't much better or worse than your standard made-for-basic-cable movie. It's almost perfectly bland... not so bad to be offensive, but not so good to be noteworthy. Bullock turns in a good performance, but that's the film's only standout element.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'Notorious' is a great spy thrillerthat includes feeble romantic elements

Notorious (1947)
Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Raines
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After tough American Intelligence agent Devlin (Grant) forces Alicia Huberman (Bergman), a young woman whose father was a notorious Nazi sympathizer to use the fact one of her father's former associates, Alexander Sebastian (Rains), loves her deeply to infiltrate a suspected group of post-WW2 Nazis in South America. Unfortunately for himself and the mission, Devlin finds himself falling in love with her.

"Notorious" is part romantic melodrama and part spy-thriller. The romance part I never did buy--the love between Grant and Bergman's characters seems forced--but the thriller side works beautifully.

Hitchcock uses camera angles, lightings, and even extreme close-up shots to heighten tension masterfully. (Alicia's confrontations with Alexander's posessive, shrewish, and master-Nazi mother are most masterfully done, as well as the climactic scene, and the final shot in particular.)

With the exception of the weakly done romance between Devlin and Alciia, the characters are all excellently drawn and brilliantly portrayed by the actors. One can actually feel Alexander's heart breaking when he discovers the truth about Alicia.

"Notorious" is another Hitchcock masterpiece. It has some flaws, but those are outweighed the overwhelming number of good parts.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: A Little Color....

Okay, so it's shades of green instead of gray, but it's a nice picture.

(Note: The "Picture Perfect" series originates with a blog that primarily features black-and-white photos and art.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another film that makes you wonder why

Scream Bloody Murder
(aka "Matthew", "Claw of Terror" and "The Captive Woman")(1973)

Starring: Fred Holbert, Leigh Mitchell, and Angus Scrimm
Director: Marc B. Ray
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A demented freak (Holbert) with an Oedipus complex that extends to every couple (or hooker and john) he meets, goes on a killing spree.

You have to wonder why some films get made. This is one of those movies. The acting is okay on the part of the leads, the dialogue is even acceptable in most places, but it's still one of the most pointless pieces of trash to be resurrected from the Drive-In dung-heap to the cheap, massive collections of movies on DVD.

Watch out for this one under its akas, especially if you're buying single movies. You will not get your money's worth if there isn't something else in the package that this crappy little picture comes in.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

'Tarzan's Revenge' is not as bad as They say

Tarzan's Revenge (1938)
Starring: Eleanor Holm, Glenn Morris, George Meeker, George Barbier, Hedda Hopper, Corbit Morris, and C. Henry Gordon
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Eleanor Reed (Holm) is on a safari with her parents (Barbier and Hopper) and her fiance Nevin Potter (Meeker) are on an African safari to capture animals for a zoo, except the shiftless,gun-happy Nevin is more interested in shooting everything he sees. When a villainous Arab sultan (Gordon) who rules a feifdom deep within the jungle decides he wants to add Elanor to his large harem by any means necessary, it's up to Tarzan to rescue her.

"Tarzan's Revenge" has been labeled by some critics as the worst Tarazn movie ever, As usual, critics who engage in such hyperbole are wrong and the truth of the matter is that it's not a bad little movie.

Yes, it tries too hard to copy the vastly superior MGM series of Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Hara (even the point where it gives Tarzan a chimp sidekick, copies the scene where Tarzan and Jane first meet, and also tries to copy the famous underwater shots of Jane and Tarzan swimming--with Elanor standing in for Jane. The film fails miserably at copying these scenes and instead just manages to call attention to the fact that it is NOT as good as the MGM-produced Tarzan films.

What is also not as good as the MGM films is the actor playing Tarzan. Glenn Morris certainly has the physique to play Tarzan, but he was an athelete and not an actor... and, boy, does that show! He hs virtually no screen presence whatsoever, only generating a little bit of excitement in the scene where he rescues Elanor from the fortress of the evil Sultan Ben Alleu Bey (played with plenty of smarminess by C. Henry Gordon. Otherwise, everyone else outshines Morris in every scene he's in, even Elanor Holm who was just as inexperienced (also an athelete, hired mostly for her good looks and physical ability) but who shows far greater talent than Morris... which is probably why Holm is the defacto star of the movie with Tarzan getting less screen time in this flick than perhaps any other Tarzan film I've seen.

There is one exceptional element to the film, and it's one I wish more Tarzan movies would do more with. (Joe Kubert would occassionally explore this side of Tarzan's personality in his run on the Tarzan comic book in the 1970s, but I've rarely seen it portrayed as clearly and charmingly as it is in this film. In "Tarzan's Revenge", Tarzan's actually a pretty peaceful man, a man who is concerned first and foremost with the happiness, safety and well-being of the animals in his jungle, and he only gets into fights when he absolutely has to. The gentle-demeanored Tarzan is a pretty cool take on the character, and it's one that makes this relatively dismal movie interesting to watch.

In fact, the biggest dissapointment in the film is that Tarzan is so gentle that he doesn't even give Nevin Potter the thrashing is so richly deserves. If there ever was a character in a movie who deserved to be tossed off a cliff by the Ape Man (or otherwise meet some horrible fate), it's this guy. Cowardly, stupid, and so bloodthirsty he guns down any animal he spots without even making an effort to collect a trophy, my disgust with him grew as the film unfolded. I really hoped a native would spear him, or a hungry crocodile would kill him. But, alas, not even Tarzan would finish him for me. (At least Elanor develops enough sense to not marry him.)

By the way, this film is completely revenge free, despite the title. As mentioned above, Tarzan doesn't even give Nevin Potter the asskicking he so richly deserves, and he even gives Tarzan plenty of reason to want revenge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Weird terror in small packages

Attack of the Puppet People
(aka "Six Inches Tall" and "The Amazing Puppet People")(1958)

Starring: John Hoyt, June Kenney and John Agar
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Mr. Franz (Hoyt), a demented puppeteer turned dollmaker invents a machine that will shrink living beings to the size of dolls. He uses it on anyone he likes who appears to be exiting his life and keeps them in his workship. When his secretary (Kenney) prepares to leave his employ to marry a likeable traveling salesman (Agar), the couple become his latest victims.

As the title of "Atack of the Puppet People" implies, the main storyline of this film involves a small group of shrunken men and women attempting to escape their captor, and, hopefully, return to their full size. It's an engaging movie--assuming you can buy into the whole "puppeteer shrinking people with mad science wonder-tech" aspect of the story--that is fast-paced and well-acted. Unfortunately, the script isn't quite up to snuff, and it features a number of plot threads that don't go anywhere and an ending that not only just sort of peters out but which leaves the fates of the majority of the puppet people a mystery.

(Even more annoying, for me at least, was that we never got to see the Jekyll/Hyde marionnette in action after all the talk that revolved around it. The scene with the tiny John Agar trashing the marionette was pretty cool, but I still would have liked to see the supposed transforming puppet actually tranform.)

'The Hearse' is a so-so ride

The Hearse (1980)
Starring: Trish Van Devere, David Gautreaux, and Joseph Cotton
Director: Gregory Bower
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jane (Van Devere) is recovering from a nervous breakdown when she decides to spend the summer in a remote house she just inherited from her mother. Once there, she finds the townsfolk less than friendly, with the handsome and mysteriously alluring Tom Sullivan (Gautreaux) being the one exception. Worse, whenever Jane travels the road into town, she is pursued by a massive hearse that no one but she can see... and when its driver starts appearing in the house, it's clear that something strange and possibly supernatural is going on. Or is Jane merely coming unglued?

The flaws with "The Hearse" are many, but two major ones is that the script establishes a level of creepy tension early on and stays there instead of building, and the fact that Trish Van Devere is the only decent performer in the film. She out-acts everyone, partially due to script issues (Jospeh Cotton has nothing to do other than be an obnoxious old man, for example) but also because with few exceptions none of the other "actors" show any acting ability.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the film is the characterization of the sullen citizens of Blackburn town. It's a requirement of a gothic thriller that our mentally troubled protagonist be isolated from any possible help, but "The Hearse takes it a step too far, particuarly in its characterization of the town's sheriff. Even the most corrupt cop wouldn't behave the way he's shown as behaving. Finally, the film's ambigious non-ending leave the viewer wondering, "Hey, shouldn't there be at least three more minutes before those credits start to roll?"

The film does have some technical highpoints, though. The multitude of night scenes are genuine night scenes--no lame night-for-day blue camera filters here!--and they are expertly lit. (There are some issues with the climactic hearse chase scene, but otherwise the crew does a bang-up job.) Also, the sequence where the hearse driver appears in Jane's house for the first time is a genuine shock and fright. It is rare that I am surprised anymore by a "Boo!" sort-of scare in a film, but this one got me good.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Don't duck 'Shoot to Kill'

Shoot to Kill (1947)
Starring: Edmund MacDonald, Russell Wade, Luana Walters and Robert Kent
Director: William Berke
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A corrupt Assistant Distric Attorney (MacDonald) starts to aspire to true political and criminal greatness when his new secretary (Walters) encourages him to think big. But, she has an agenda of her own, and even as the ADA is playing various criminals against each other so he can emerge as the last man standing, other plans are being set into motion.

"Shoot to Kill" is a fairly standard crime drama that's made interesting by some nice plot twists and a Big Reveal that is actually rather surprising. (I spent most of the film thinking that it was borrowing from Shakespear's "MacBeth", but it turned out I was wrong.)

With fine performances by all actors (MacDonald and Walters in particular excel as a pair of devious, two-faced schemers that can't be trusted under any circimstances), and a fast-paced, clever plot where the standard issue wise-cracking reporter (Wade) has mercifully little actual screen-time, I think fans of classic crime dramas and film noir will find this a nice way to spend an hour.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Which house? Witchouse!

Witchouse (1999)
Starring: Matt Raferty, Monica Serene Garnic, and Ashley McKinney
Director: Jack Reed
Producers: Charles Band, Kirk Edward Hansen and Vlad Paunescu
Rating: One of Ten Stars

I probably should have know better than to bother with a film that can't spell it's own title in a sensible fashion. How is "Witchouse" to be pronouned anyway? What does it mean?

Is it "Witch Ouse"? "Wit Chouse"? Or could no one at Full Moon Productions or Castel Films properly spell "Witch House"? (Maybe Castel Films, the company co-producing the picture, is actually Castle Films?)

"Witchouse" is the tale of the final night on Earth an unlikable group of college-age teens (who run the cliche gamut from stoner dude and rocker chick, to oversexed jock and cheerleader, to the shy dork who rises to the challenge and unexpectedly to eventually save the day. They have been invited to a party at the home of their strange high school friend Elizabeth. Turns out, she is the decendent of a witch who was burned at the stake by the ancestors of her guests, and that she has decided it's time for revenge and a little demon summoning.

Everything that follows is as predictable as a paint-by-numbers picture of dogs playing poker, made worse by bad acting and an even worse script. (What's truly shocking is that this awful movie spawned at least three sequels!)

"Witchouse" wishes it was "Demons " or "April Fool's Day," but the script, the actors, and the special effects are so bad that it is closer in nature to "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" or "Plan Nine From Outer Space."

There is really nothing here to recommend this film for anything but use as a doorstop.

Consign this one to the graveyard of forgotten films

Graveyard of Horror (aka "Necrophagus" and "The Butcher of Binbrook") (1971)
Starring: Bill Curran, John Clark, Titania Clement, and Beatriz Lacy
Director: Miguel Madrid (or Michael Skaife, depending on the info source)
Rating: One of Ten Stars

When Michael (Curran) sets out to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of his wife, he comes into conflict with her evil, crazy sisters, a bizarre grave-robbing cult, and the lizard-monster they serve. Then, random stuff happens, random flashback scenes occur, and the movie makes less and sense as it progresses toward its lame ending.

The DVD back-cover copy (which shows that even the marketeers couldn't stand this piece of trash, as it has virtually nothing to do with the "story" of the film) starts "A little-seen and bizarre movie..." Well, some movies are little seen because they aren't worth seeing, and "Graveyard of Horror" is one of those.

I suspect there's a plot somewhere in this film, but I sure as hell couldn't find it. Leave this awful film (with its bad dubbing, awful editing, bad camera work and laughable lizard-man monster costume) in the graveyard of forgotten movies.

(Note: The film is getting a very generous One Star, because it DID keep me watching to the end. I watched with morbid curiosity to see if it could get any worse. In that, "Graveyard of Horror" didn't dissapoint: It's one steady downward slide into crapitude.)

Bates Motel is a little like Hotel California

Psycho (1960)
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin and Vera Miles
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Marion Crane (Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer and heads off to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (Gavin). Before she can meet up with him, however, she vanishes without a trace. Sam and her worried sister, Lila (Miles) track her to the isolated Bates Motel, where a soft-spoken young man named Norman (Perkins) struggles under the heavy hand of his shrewish, possessive mother. But Norman is a man who has many dark secrets....

I think everyone reading this knows what Norman is hiding, as well as where Marion and the $40,000 vanished to... but in case someone hasn't seen one of the greatest horror films ever made, I'll keep to my policy of not offering any spoilers.

Suffice it to say that I think this movie must have been absolutely, jaw-dropping in its audacity with the plot-twist that happens about 15-20 minutes in. I doubt anyone could have been prepared for it, and "Psycho" is still remarkable for flawless way it pulls it off... few films can take such a shocking left turn and not spill the audience on the curve. Instead, after the shock wears off--and it IS shocking if you aren't expecting it, even in this day and age when movies go back for reshoots to add violence and nudity--the audience is even more captivating. Where can the movie go from there, they're asking themselves.

"Psycho" is one of Hitchcock's finest movies. The cast is perfect; the script is perfect; the sets are amazing; the camerawork and creative use of lighting is astonishingly creative and effective; and the Bernard Hermann score is absolutely mindblowing (even if I'm not as fond of the "Murder Theme" as so many others are... there are far better bits of music in the film).

If you haven't see it, or if you've seen the pale imitation that was released in 1998 under the guise of a "remake" (and it was an imitation... to call that travesty a "remake" is an insult to genuine remakes, no matter how bad they might be), you need to see "Psycho". It's a film every movie lover should experience.

'The Gauntlet' manages to squeeze character in among non-stop action

The Gauntlet (1977)
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Ben Shockley (Eastwood) is a burned-out Phoenix cop who is sent to Las Vegas to retrieve a reluctant witness Augustina "Gus" Mally (Locke). It seems like another meaningless assignment given to someone who is just counting down to retirement... until the bullets start to fly. Shockley soon learns that he was given this escort duty because his superiors expected him to fail and that he is in the middle of a plot cooked up by corrupt officials at the highest level of Phoenix's government. Shockley finds his spirit again, and, fighting against deceit on both sides of the law, he strikes back and sets in motion explosive plans of his own to deliver "Gus" to the Phoenix courthouse.

"The Gauntlet" is one of my all-time favorite action movies, and my very favorite Clint Eastwood film. He and Locke play fabulously off each other, and the rebirth that Ben Shockley experiences in the film makes him an extremely intriguing character that Eastwood brings to fantastic and believable life.

With non-stop action and just the right amount of humor and tragedy.well-timed plot-twists, villains who actually have mounted a conspiracy that's believable, and an over-the-top finale where an entire police force seems to have been mobilized to execute one lonely man and one lonely woman, "The Gauntlet" fires in perfect rhythm on all cylinders from beginning to end.

It's a classic movie that any lover of action films, cop dramas, and the works of Clint Eastwood needs to see.

[Footnote to Review When Originally Posted in 2005]
"The Gauntlet" actually serves as a nice contrast with the awful remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" from 2005. The two moves share many of the same themes and their main characters share several similar traits. They also both end with a misappropriate of police resources so extreme that the conspirators arrayed against the hero have lost even if they win.

However, "Assault" uses the elements badly and clumsily while "The Gauntlet" brings them all together in perfection. As a result, "Assault" is a dull string of action sequences that don't really result in anything than run-of-the-mill, going-through-the-motions storytelling with cliched and flat characters, and that culminate in what seems like an outrageous reach into the rediculous with the arrival of a helicopter and airborn SWAT officers; while "The Gauntlet" is a series of action scenes that lead to mysteries being solved, characters rediscovering strengths they thought they had lost, and that culminate in what seems like a perfectly acceptable final effort by desperate bad guys hoping to save themselves.

I think examaning these films closely will tell aspiring filmmakers volumes about what it takes to make a proper movie of this kind.

Monday, January 11, 2010

'Untraceable' is worth tracking down

Untraceable (2008)
Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Mary Beth Hurt, and Owen Reilly
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A genius-level hacker (Reilly) is kidnapping and murdering victims live on a website. The more people who log on, the faster the victims die. As FBI cyber-crime experts (Lane and Hanks) close in onthe killer, he makes them his next targets.

"Untraceable" is a decent thriller in the mold of "The Card Player" (review here) and it had far more in common with that lesser-known thriller than "Silence of the Lambs", which some reviewers compare it to. (I can only, once again, assume that these reviewers don't watch enough movies, or they don't really pay attention to the movies they do watch. The similarities between this film and "Silence of the Lambs" are superficial and comparing the two does neither film justice.)

Although there are few surprises in "Untraceable", the film moves along at a fast pace and keeps the suspense high, despite the fact that most of film involves characters just sitting around. Further, its likeable and talented cast makes sure the viewer feels engaged in the film, and even the most jaded member of the audience will start to be drawn in when the killer sets his sights on the film's heroes. Even better, the film's villain is ultimately a pathetic loser for whom the audience will feel more disgust than respect; it's high time a movie got away from the "kewl bad guy" trend.

A killer lurks in the Monte Carlo night

Monte Carlo Nights (1934)
Starring: John Darrow, Mary Brian, George Hayes and Kate Campbell
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After being convicted for a murder he didn't commit, adventurer Larry Sturgis (Darrow) is on his way to prison when a lucky coincidence gives him a chance to not only escape, but also to cover his trial by appearing to be dead. Following the only lead to the real killer--a system for playing the roulette wheel--he travels to Monte Carlo in hopes of tracking him down. Here, he reunites with his fiancee (Brian) and a police detective (Hayes), both of whom never gave up on proving his innocence. Will they find a killer before he strikes at them from the shadows of the Monte Carlo night?

"Monte Carlo Nights" is among the best-looking films that prolific low-budget mystery director William Nigh ever helmed. With three gorgeous and talented actresses in key roles, a decent leading man, and a bigger budget than average for a Monogram production--as evident in the sets, costumes, and crane shots featured in the film--Nigh delivers a decent little thriller that holds up nicely some 75+ years later.

The film has two weaknesses that causes me to rate it at the lower end of average, one of which is direction, the other a script issue. First, the film starts slowly, forcing the viewer to sit through an entire horse race while an ineffective attempt at establishing the lead characters takes place; it is such an obvious bit of padding that I had low hopes for the rest of the film... but it quickly got better. Second, the script is too sloppy to be truly effective in the "innocent man accused" genre that it belongs to. While it's a subgenre that was still taking shape--and Alfred Hitchcock wouldn't perfect it in movies until a few years after the release of "Monte Carlo Nights"--there's no excuse for the incompetent way the film's red herrings are served out (and then barely adressed as the film moves along).

Still, despite its flaws, this is one of those pleasant surprises that emeges while one digs through the piles of neglected or completely forgotten films that have received new life with the coming of DVD.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bava delivers stylish tale of gothic hauntings

Kill, Baby... Kill!
(aka "Curse of the Dead", "Don't Walk in the Park", and "Operation Fear") (1966)

Starring: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dalin, and Max Lawrence, Valeria Valeri, and Giana Vivaldi
Director: Mario Bava
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Dr. Paul Eswai (Rossi-Stuart) arrives to assist with a murder investigation in a remote village. He finds the place gripped in fear of some evil whose name they don't even dare to mention. Although he at first dismisses it as superstitious nonsense, Paul finds it increasingly difficult to deny that the town is being haunted by the ghost of a vengeful little girl (Valeri)... particularly after he and a young woman with a mysterious past (Blanc) become targets of the spirit's wrath. Will he discover the secret behind the hauntings before it's too late to save himself?

"Kill, Baby... Kill!" is an Italian production that has all the production values and moodiness of some of the best Hammer gothic horror films from the late 1950s and early 1960s. If it wasn't for the bizarre color schemes that director and cinematographer Mario Bava likes to use to light his sets--lots of reds and greens, even in outdoor night shots-- and a somewhat more ponderous pace throughout, one might mistake this film as coming from the hands of the likes of Terence Fisher.

The film has a decent cast, an engaging, convoluted story that keeps twisting and turning up to nearly the very last moment of the film, and a very creepy little girl ghost. (Yes, the stringy-haired Japanese ghost chicks weren't the first underage phantoms in skirts to massacre the fearful.)

On the downside, the film suffers from a pace that never quite gets to where it should be. Bava treats us to some great visuals but he goes overboard with them and they become drags on the film at several different times than mood setters... there's just a little too much calling attention to the tricks of the trade than simply applying them. (And here's where Fisher leaves Bava in the dust... he made gorgeous, moody pictures, but he never felt the need to call the audience's attention to his work... instead, we just absorbed the whole.)

Aside from Bava's cries for attention throughout the movie, the end also suffers from a touch of "deux ex machina". It's an ending that makes sense and which is well-founded in the events of the film, but I would have liked the hero and heroine to have been just a little more directly involved in the resolution. I can see the rationale for why they weren't--the fact that the village sorceress (Dalin) is ultimately the one who stops the ghost plays into the conflict between science and superstition that is part of the movie's core. However, I think the ending would have worked better if science and sorcery came together to resolve the curse that gripped the town.

(And, frankly, given the way the sorceress deals with the root of the problem, even Erika Blank's damsel-in-distress character could have played a part.)

Although flawed, "Kill, Baby... Kill!" is a decent ghost movie. Fans of European horror films from the '60s and '70s should enjoy it. Heck, the fans of stringy-haired Japanese ghost girls will find quite a bit to like in this film, too.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pop stars make cute vampire slayers

The Vampire Effect (2003)
Starring: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Ekin Cheng, Edison Chen, Anthony Wong and Jackie Chan
Director: Dante Lam
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"The Vampire Effect" is a light-hearted Chinese film about fearless kung-fu fighting vampire slayers who are called upon to stop an evil vampire lord from gaining the collective powers of all vampires and ushering in a new era of darkness and evil on Earth.

The film is populated by likable (if goofy) characters, and features great fight- and wire-fu scenes, and is genuinely funny on many occasions. There is a romantic subplot where the teenaged sister of the chief vampire hunter falls in love with the slacker son of the Chinese vampire king that is a bit too sappy (and too close to what a genuine teenage love affair is like--contentless phone conversations and lame dates--but the rest of the film more than makes up for it. Jackie Chan is featured in a small part, but his performance is funny and actually revolves around an important plot point.

I might have given this film Eight Stars--it is funny and it kept me entertained from beginning to end--but the lack of a wrap-up at the end cost it a point. In the same way the first kung-fu vampire movie just sort of ended when the action was over ("Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires" starring Peter Cushing, review coming soon), "The Vampire Effect" likewise starts rolling credits almost immediately after the spectacular final fight is over. I was left wanting a bit more of a wrap-up for the Jackie Chan character. He had been drawn into what is implied to be a secret international war against the vampires, and yet the character is just dropped. It was the one sour note that was struck during this otherwise entertaining film.

One comment totally unrelated to this film: About a year after seeing it, I learned that it was made as a vehicle for Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, who were big pop stars in China at the time it was made. Oh, if only American girl pop-singers could be put in vehicles one-tenth as good as "The Vampire Effect."

Saturday Scream Queen: Darian Caine

A varsity cheerleader in high school, Darian Caine has remained physically active in her film career... and she wore even skimpier outfits or nothing at all. Since her screen debut in 1998's "Alien Encounter: Girl Explores Girl," she has appeared in nearly 60 films, most of them horror-tinged spoofs full of softcore, and even hardcore, pornography and lesbian sex scenes. She more recently branched out into more mainstream horror films, being a featured player in several low budget horror films, including Len Kabasinski's martial-arts themed vampire and werewolf movies (for which she did all her own stunts and fight scenes).

Caine's films range from craptacular to spectacular, so reviews of films featuring her will be appearing here and at the companion blog Movies to Die Before Seeing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

'A Face in the Fog' not worth chasing after

A Face in the Fog (1936)
Starring: Lloyd Hughes, June Collyer, Al St. John, and Lawrence Gray
Director: Robert Hill
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When society reporter-trying-to-become-a-crimebeat-reporter Jean Monroe (Collyer) claims to have seen the face of the mysterious killer who is poisoning theatre people in the city, and that she intends to reveal his identity in a future column, she becomes his next target. Her fiance and fellow reporter Frank Gordon (Hughes) teams with criminologist and playwright Peter Fortune (Gray) to catch the killer before he claims Jean's life.

"A Face in the Fog" is one of those weakly written mysteries where there is only one possible suspect, who, concocting a really brilliant method of committing his murders, his subsequent actions are so dumb that even Barney Fife could have caught him while in the middle of a three-day moonshine bender. , but it moves along at such a pace that the viewer hardly have time to notice. The plot also doesn't make one bit of sense, nor do the reasons for who the killer chooses as his victims.

However, the film moves along at such a high pace and the actors actors perform with such charm and sincerety that I couldn't help but like it.

With its decent cast and a kernal of a good idea at its core, "A Face in the Fog" ends being a entertaining enough movie. I can't quite recommend you seek it out, but I also can't condemn it.)

Vampires + martial arts = gory fun

Fist of the Vampire (2008)
Starring: Brian Anthony, Leon South, Darian Caine, Cheyenne King, and Brian Heffron
Director: Len Kabasinski
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two police officers, the beef-cakey Lee (Anthony) and the babealicious Davidson (King), infiltrate an underground extreme fighting ring, only to come into direct conflict with the vampires that run it (Caine, Heffron, and South).

"Fist of the Vampire" is a rarity among low-budget action films. It sports a decent cast, a well-conceived script, and some effective use of both CGI and blue-screen effects. Overall, it's an entertaining film that fans of vampires and street fighting will enjoy.

The film derives most of its strengths from a solid script that moves along speedily from beginning to end. There isn't any big surprises in it, but it makes full use of both the vampire and extreme fighting angles. The good script also gives the lead actors plenty of material to work with, and they all do a good job in their parts. The weakest performer is Brian Heffron, who plays the vampire ring leader. His role called for someone to be completely over the top, but instead he seems subdued in most scenes. He is reportedly a professional wrestler who goes by the name of the Blue Meanie, so this is surprising to me. If anyone can ham it up, it's professional wrestlers!)

Another strong point in the film is the use of CGI. It's become commonplace for low-budget films to use CGI to simulate muzzle-flashes and gunfire and we have that here, too. The degree to which it's done is the most impressive I've seen so far. (The filmmakers go a little overboard here and there--such with an animated bullet speeding through the air that's cool the first time we see it but which gets tiresome when they use it a second and third time.) The CGI explosions, fire, and other blue screen effects are also very nice executed, particularly the ones where vampires meet their fiery ends.

Unfortunately, for all its good parts, it also features a number of weaknesses that are often present in low-budget action movies.

The most glaring of these weaknesses is in the fight scenes. While the staging of the action and the cinematography is superior to what I've seen in many films at this budget level, they are still obviously staged and choreographed. The angles the fights are being filmed from successfully hides that full-on blows don't connect, but the actors are under-rehearsed and blows and parries are telegraphed so far in advanced that nearly all illusion of reality is dispelled.

In final analysis, I think "Fist of the Vampire" is worth seeking out if you like vampires and martials flicks. Despite its flaws, it's a fun and fast-moving picture.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ginger Rogers is excellent in this obscure thriller

A Shriek in the Night (1933)
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Purnell Pratt, Harvel Clark, Lillian Harmer, Louise Beaver, and Arthur Hoyt
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A series of murders take place in an upscale apartment building, and reporters Pat Morgan (Rogers) and Ted Kord (Talbot)--working for rival newspapers but involved in a romantic relationship--are hot on the trail of the killer, or killers. Morgan happened to be working on an investigative piece about one of the victims, so she is in a perfect place to help both her career and the police... so long as she doesn't end up a murder victim herself.

"A Shriek in the Night" is, for the most part, a fairly typical early 1930s low-budget mystery, with dimwitted maids, cranky police detectives (although in this one the detective is not incompetent, just cranky), and wise-cracking reporters running circles around everyone and ultimately providing the clues needed to solve the mystery. The acting is above average here, and the characterizations of the two reporters and the police detective are also a bit more intelligent and three-dimensional than is often the case in these movies. (The comic relief maids are still as annoying as ever; if this is what American-born house-servants were like, it's no wonder we took to importing illegal aliens to turn down our beds and clean our homes!)

What really sets the film apart from others like it is its villain, and a surprisingly chilling sequence where he prepares to burn Pat Morgan alive. This character feels in many ways like an ancestor to the mad killers who came into vogue during the 1970s, and which continue to slash, strangle, and mutilate their way across the movie screen to this very day.

Another thing I found interesting in this film is how different Ginger Rogers' character was from the one she played two years later in "The Thirteenth Guest".

Many actors and actresses that appeared in these B-movies gave pretty much the same performance in movie after movie--for instance, there's very little difference between the smart-ass character Lyle Talbot plays here and the one he played in "The Thirteenth Guest." I haven't seen enough of Rogers' performances to really know why there is this difference--was she lucky enough to have a chance to show different facets of her acting ability, or did she make each part she played different somehow?--but it was an unexpected surprise.

Those of you out there with more than just a passing interest in suspense and horror movies may want to check this film out for its very modern, proto-"maniac killer" character/sequence. Those of you who just enjoy this style of movies--mysteries that get solved by wise-cracking reporters who take nothing seriously--should also check it out. It's a fun way to spend an hour.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:The Right to Keep and Bear Arms

The United States Bill of Rights states that "... the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." And here is Louise Brooks practicing her Constitutionally protected right.

Louise Brooks was an American actress who started out as a chorus dancer but became one of the silent movie eras most popular stars. However, Brooks strong personality also put her at odds with the aspects of American culture in general and the Hollywood elite in particular--she was disatisfied with the restrictive role that women had in American society and insisted on having things her way or not at all.

Although Brooks only appeared in 25 movies, she set a number of fashion trends (foremost of these being her bobbed hairstyle) and became the inspiration for Guido Crepax's comic book heroine "Valentina." She retired from film in 1938, weary of fighting the studio system. She later worked as a dance instructor and writer, publishing numerous books and essays about Hollywood and the film .

Louise Brooks passed away in 1984 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 78.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Help me see good points in this movie

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)
Starring: Anthony Steffan and Erika Blanc
Director: Emilio Marigilia
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A nobleman (Steffen) is released from an insane asylum... only to find himself haunted by the ghost of his dead wife as he starts getting his life back together. Will he end up back in the booby-hatch, or will the secret behind the restless spirit be uncovered in time to save him?

I've seen some pretty bad movies, and "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" ranks up (down?) there with the worst of them. First, the restless spirit is being caused by the most cliched of causes in this kind of film. Second, the character with whom we are expected to sympathize is an active, masochistic serial killer who is picking up hookers and torturing them to death in his estate. Finally, the attempts at twists in the film (even beyond the "shocking" truth behind the walking ghost of Evelyn) are pretty much all so lame and goofy when viewed in the context of the "hero's" murderous actions that one has to wonder if anyone saw the entire script during production.

The thing I find most mystifying about "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" is that I've actually seen positive reviews of it. Now, I realize that there are few things as subjective as A&E reviews, but I can't fathom that anyone could say anything nice about this utterly awful film (other than, maybe, "Erika Blanc is easy on the eyes.")

If you know of what appeals to audiences about this film, I'd love to hear your viewpoint.

Forgotten Comics: GoGirl

GoGirl! (Graphic Novel #1, Dark Horse 2001)
Writer: Trina Robbins
Artist: Anne Timmons
Rating: Eight of Ten Tomatoes

When the GoGirl! comic book debuted a few years back, I posted a rave about the title on my website. It was a fun read, with charming, non-teeth-gritting and chestpounding and angstily ranting characters. Unfortunately, already by issue #2, I knew the title was not long for the world... I couldn't get my hands on it, and I was already seeing net-rumours about how the book was on the verge of cancellation. Typical... no comic book I like seems to lasts long.

With the publication of the GoGirl trade paperback, I can read all the fun little tales of Lindsay, the daughter of a Seventies superhero who inherited her mother's ability to fly, in a compact package. I can even get to read the issues I never could find, despite my comic shop's insistence they ordered them repeated (#2, #3, and #5).

Aside from some well-done stories, the brief introduction from writer Trina Robbins is an interesting read. Apparently, what short life the comic book series had was breathed into it by anger from internet critics when it seemed the title was going to be discontinued even before it saw the light of day due to low pre-orders. Robbins mentioned that part of the motivation behind the title was to prove that girls read comics. Whether Image (the publisher of the single issues) dropped the ball, of if there was some other problem, or if GoGirl! actually helped prove that girls DON'T read comics, unfortunately, the title seems to have failed commercially. The title continued in two additional graphic novels from Dark Horse, but the last one appeared in 2006--and was released with such stealth that it is only just now that I discovered it was even published. I'll be ordering a copy, and posting a review down the line.

Tone-wise, GoGirl! reminds me of some of my favorite comics from when I was a kid--the Cary Bates-scripted issues of Superman. I wish more titles had the sort of light touches present in GoGirl! these days, but, given how such stories don't seem to work for the majority of comic book readers, I doubt it's going to happen.

Monday, January 4, 2010

'Cursed' is a fine mix of old and new horror sensibilities

Cursed (2007)
Starring: Christina Ricci
Director: Wes Craven
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Christina Ricci stars as a young TV producer who finds her inner beast unleashed after she and her brother are bit by a werewolf. Put "Cursed" next to also-rans like "Boogeyman" and "The Grudge," and it's more clear than ever that Wes Craven remains the king of horror flicks featuring Beautiful People Vs. The Monsters.

"Cursed" is at once a by-the-numbers werewolf flick (complete with pure-hearted victims trying to fight the curse and a storyline that invites the viewers to guess which of the supporting characters is the monster) and a clever, engaging film that keeps the viewers guessing right up to the end. The film is full of elements so well used they've become cliches, but it embraces them in a way that's both respectful of all the films that have gone before and light-hearted. "Cursed" moves from suspenseful, to funny, to scary with ease, and folks who enjoy good horror movies will love this one.

(I spend a lot of time railing against films that don't bring anything new to their genres, but "Cursed" puts all the old elements together is such a graceful and fun fashion that I can't mount any complaints. Craven clearly knew he was making a cliched movie, and he took full advantage of that fact. If more directors and script writers would take that approach, maybe their retreads would come together more effectively.)

Despite title, this movie is demon free

Demon Seduction (aka "Demon Sex") (2005)
Starring: Vesper Almasy, Tuesday Coren, Toby Dammit and Brinke Stevens
Director: Greg Lewolt
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A cult of women that has kept the secret of aliens who once ruled humanity down through ages is on the verge of recreating those aliens through modern genetic engineering technology and the pregnant friend of an exotic dancer (Almasy).

"Demon Seduction" is a film that could have been very cool. It's got alien conspiracies, evil witch cultists, genetic engineering run wild... it could have been an episode of "The X-Files" on PCP crossed with an issue of "Weekly World News" in its Golden Age brought to glorious life.

Unfortunatley, while all the elements are there, this film is not cool. It's not even fun. Most of its running time is spent on weak and very unerotic sex scenes (which, I suppose makes them very realistic... real sex is boring for anyone but the participants) and static scenes with actors sitting around delivering bad dialogue that's made worse by their bad delivery.

The only things about this film that were remotely decent was an alien skull prop--that was way too cool to just be used for this film; I hope that it found its way into other movies--and some of the CGI effects.

Unless you're really hard up for naked flesh and/or like seeing some blood and gore with your naked women, there is nothing here that's worth your money and time. The ONLY way you should acquire this movie would be as part of the "Tomb of Terrors 50 Movie Pack" (where it's included under the title "Demon Sex"), because you'll be getting 49 other low-budget horror flicks, including the fairly decent "The Traveler", "The Somnambulists", and "Strange Things Happen at Sundown". (You either can or will eventually be able to reviews of most of the films in the collection either here on at the companion blog
Terror Titans.)

You do not want to pay full price for "Demon Seduction" by itself unless, maybe, you're renting it as part of your Netflix selection for a month.

(I feel a bit awkward panning this movie. The summary and title on the Brain Damage Films website sounded so interesting that I begged my way into a screening copy. I wish it had been better, because I would have loved to return the distributor's generosity with a favorable review.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

'Murder at Glen Athol' is a mystery worth investigating

Murder at Glen Athol (aka "The Criminal Within") (1936)
Starring: John Miljan, Irene Ware, Iris Adrian and James Burtis
Director: Frank Strayer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Well-known gentleman detective Bill Holt (Miljan) is called upon to solve the murders of the VERY liberated Muriel Randall (Adrian) and her ex-husband before an innocent man is condemned.

"Murder at Glen Athol" is interesting primarily for some of its unusual characters. First, we have a comic relief character (Burtis) who is actually a competent assistant to the hero. Second, we have the character of Muriel Randall, a relatively typical murder victim in the sort of Agatha Christie-style mystery that this film represents... although she's far more aggressive and far more liberated and even sexually charged than anyone who ever sprang from the pages of Christie.

The overall plot is solid enough, and the acting and writing is also pretty decent. There's nothing that'll make you sit up and say "Wow!" (except the presence of the two unusual characters noted above, and you'll only be impressed by them if you've seen a lot of early mystery and horror movies), but everything here is competently done.

With one minor exception. I like mystery movies to play fair, that give the audience a chance to guess who the murderer is while the detective investigates. This film plays more fair than most mysteries of the time; generally speaking, the solution to the mystery is a "cheat"--it's based on something that the audience never had a chance to see, like something the detective discovers off-camera.

In fact, "Murder at Glen Athol" may even play a little too fair, as I guessed who the killer was as soon as the rather heavy-handed hint to when the murder was committed and by whom appeared on screen. I don't mind guessing the killing, and it didn't ruin the movie for me, but it did have me expecting there would be another twist coming.

Perhaps the clues provided aren't as heavy-handed as all that. Perhaps I've just seen waaaay too many mystery movies. For me, the overplaying of the hint of the killer's identity is the one weak spot in this otherwise average movie.