Wednesday, 15 May 2013
A young man named Michael Radin working at the Museum of Ancient History takes a 3,000-year-old American Indian ritual mask home with him. He dons the mask and instantly starts to experience a kind of bad acid trip. In his dream, or hallucination, he stalks and kills a young woman. When he wakes up he has claw marks on his face. Is this really a dream? And even if it is a dream, is the dream coming from his own subconscious or from the mask itself?
Radin consults a psychiatrist. Dr Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) thinks that Radin is just a routine neurotic acting out his subconscious fantasies. Radin is so upset, and so angry at Dr Barnes, that he promptly goes home and blows his brains out. But before doing that he packs the mask in a cardboard box and mails it to Dr Barnes. Dr Barnes just can’t help himself - he has to try the mask himself. And he’s immediately zapped into acid trip/Indian tribal ritual territory.
Dr Barnes isn’t really sure if his visions are the product of his own mind or if they’re coming from the mask but what he is convinced of is that this represents a major break-through in psychiatry. He is determined to continue experimenting with the mask. But the mask is habit-forming and it causes problems with his girlfriend Pam (Claudette Nevins). Pam persuades him to consult another psychiatrist, a man who was his mentor in his student days. The professor reluctantly agrees to help Dr Barnes with his research on the mask, but only under controlled conditions.
As you might expect those controlled conditions very quickly get out of control. A further problem for Allan Barnes is the police investigation of Michael Radin’s suicide. Lieutenant Martin (Bull Walker) is not sure this was a straightforward suicide.
After experiencing a few forays into dream territory with the mask Dr Barnes starts to take an unhealthy interest in his secretary. It’s an interest that is unhealthy for him but may be considerably more than unhealthy for her.
The Mask was directed by Julian Roffman. It was his second movie as director, and his last. The dream sequences were filmed in 3-D and were done by Serbian-born veteran Hollywood montage editor Slavko Vorkapich. These dream sequences are the movie’s highlight and they’re pretty impressive. The decision to do them in 3-D was perhaps unfortunate as it gave the impression that they were as gimmicky and trivial as 3-D itself. By this time the 3-D fad had well and truly run its course.
The acting is uniformly bad. Since this is a horror movie that doesn’t matter too much. And the bulk of the movie consists of a fairly routine horror movie plot that is really just a framing device for the dream sequences that are the movie’s real raison d'être.
This movie got a theatrical release in the US courtesy of Warner Brothers but sadly it didn’t do well enough to provide a launching pad for director Julian Roffman or for Canadian horror movies.
The DVD release from Cheezy Flicks is quite awful. It’s fullframe and the picture quality is mediocre, and most importantly the transfer very badly fails to do justice to the dream sequences (even if you do wear the 3-D glasses included with the DVD). The movie has also been cut which may be the explanation for the very abrupt ending.
Despite the dreadfulness of the DVD The Mask is still worth seeing and this DVD is probably going to be your only chance to do so. It’s an intriguing precursor to the wave of psychedelic movies that hit movie screens in the mid-60s.
Friday, 10 May 2013
There are two schools of thought on the correct approach to making a Bond movie. One school holds that it is desirable to keep as close as possible to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s novels. This requires a fairly realistic approach and it requires Bond to be a fairly hard-edged character.
The second school holds that Bond movies are pure escapist fun and the sillier and campier they are the better.
I’ve always preferred the second approach, although it has to be said that the first approach has something to be said for it.
The Roger Moore Bond films tended to stick to the second approach which reached a climax with the gleefully outrageous Moonraker in 1979. When it came to the next movie in the series for some reason it seemed to have been decided to go for the first option. For Your Eyes Only is the most serious of the Roger Moore films. There are spectacular stunts but there aren’t the outrageous gadgets and most of the action sequences are reasonably plausible.
To my way of thinking it suffers a little from the lack of a larger-than-life villain. Bond is not up against a diabolical criminal mastermind. He’s up against criminals and KGB agents. I feel that a hero of Bond’s stature really needs to be measured against a villain on an epic scale.
A British spy ship is sunk, and to the embarrassment and consternation of Her Majesty’s government a piece of very vital equipment was not destroyed before the ship sank. If it falls into the hands of the Russians it will render Britain’s main line of defence, her Polaris missile submarines, powerless. An attempt by a British archaeologist to retrieve the device fails and the archaeologist is killed. His daughter, Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) survives and vows vengeance. Melina is half-Greek and vengeance is something she takes very seriously. She will be a useful ally for 007.
Rival bands of smugglers are also interested in finding the device and one of these smugglers intends to sell it to the KGB.
The plot allows for the sorts of underwater sequences that were always a highlight of Bond films. The duel between the two midget submarines is particularly impressive. There are also some exciting action sequences set in a Greek monastery high on a rocky summit. These scenes require some rather energetic for Bond. At 53 Roger Moore was getting a bit old for this sort of thing but he does better than you might expect.
Moore accepts the challenge of playing a more serious Bond and is surprisingly convincing. He restrains his more camp impulses and plays things very straight. That’s not the way I like to see Bond played but Moore is much more successful at this than anyone would have suspected.
Carole Bouquet is a slightly bland Bond girl. Fortunately Lynn-Holly Johnson is on hand to add some spice as Bibi Dahl. She was a former champion figure skater and she plays a young skater in training for the Winter Olympics. Bibi think the best place to train is in the bedroom and she thinks Bond would make an excellent training partner. She’s funny and sexy and likeable and adds some much-needed lightness to an otherwise rather gritty movie.
Topol and Julian Glover are solid enough as the rival Greek smuggling chiefs. Bernard Lee had passed away in early 1981 so M doesn’t make an appearance this time, his place being taken (very capably) by Geoffrey Keen as the Minister of Defence. Q is still there however, as is Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny.
Director John Glen was making his first Bond movie and he handles the job extremely well. The rather long running time never drags. The action sequences are very good. A car chase in a Bond movie has to be witty as well as exciting and the one in this movie, with Bond fleeing from the bad guys in a little 2CV Citroen, qualifies on both counts.
I you like your Bond movies to be realistic spy thrillers you should love For Your Eyes Only. If like me you prefer them to be more in the mould of outrageous campy fun then you might find that one a bit of a disappointment after the glorious excessiveness of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker but it’s still fine entertainment.
Sunday, 5 May 2013
Therein of course lies the problem. Had a studio like Disney done this film it might have been every bit as good as their superb 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. AIP just didn’t have the money or the resources, or the expertise, of Disney. Despite this Master of the World is still a good deal of fun.
We start in a small town in Pennsylvania, a town sheltering under the slopes of a huge mountain known as the Great Eyrie. Loud rumbling noises are heard and the earth begins to shake. It looks like the Great Eyrie is about to erupt. Which is strange, since the mountain range of which it forms a part is not volcanic. How can a mountain that is not a volcano erupt? And what is the explanation of the booming voice heard at the time?
The US government, not unnaturally, wants to find out. They send out a man from the Department of the Interior to investigate. The man is John Strock (Charles Bronson). Strock decides that the best way to find out what is going on inside the Great Eyrie is to go have a look-see. That’s a sound idea, but the Great Eyrie is unclimbable. That’s awkward, but Strock is undaunted. If he can’t climb the mountain he’ll fly over it. Since this is 1868 the only way to do that is in a balloon.
He calls on the services of a ballooning society. The president of this society, an arms manufacturer named Prudent (Henry Hull), has designed a modern motor-driven balloon in conjunction with Phillip Evans (David Frankham). Evans is engaged to be married to Prudent’s daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster). Dorothy insists on coming along and soon she, her father, Evans and John Strock are flying over the mountain peak. At which time they are shot down by missile fire.
The four intrepid balloonists survive the crash of their balloon and wake up in what appears to be a ship. But this is no ordinary ship. It is an airship, the Albatross, and they are now the guests (or in practical terms the prisoners) of the airship’s captain, Robur (Vincent Price). The Albatross is many years ahead of its time. It is powered by electricity generated by some kind of magnetic engine.
Robur is not just a brilliant eccentric inventor and explorer. He is a man with a mission. His mission is to stamp out war, and he intends to do this no matter how many people he has to kill in the process. Robur intends to blackmail the governments of the world into disarming by threatening them with destruction from the skies. Like most people who want to save the world Robur doesn’t bother to ask if the world if the world wants or indeed needs to be saved.
It is apparent to our four adventurous balloonists that somebody has to stop Robur, and it’s going to have to be them. This is made more difficult by the fact that Evans and Strock dislike and distrust each other.
While Vincent Price will always be best remembered for his horror roles he was also superb in adventure movies as a tragic, flawed hero (as in War Gods of the Deep). Robur is dangerous and deluded but he is also charismatic and charming. He can be capriciously cruel but he is also capable of kindness, and even on rare occasions remorse. It’s a fine performance.
Charles Bronson might seem to a modern viewer to be miscast, but it has to be remembered that when this movie was made he hadn’t yet been stereotyped as the dark brooding killer type. He actually makes a decent adventure story hero. Mary Webster is quite adequate, Henry Hull is fun as Mr Prudent, but sadly David Frankham is rather bland as Evans.
The special effects were always going to be potentially the weak link. They are in fact variable but better than you might expect in a movie made under the budgetary constraints imposed by AIP’s lack of resources. There are some very obvious matte paintings, especially in the opening scene, but on the whole they’re reasonable enough. Most importantly the miniatures work is excellent. The Albatross looks very impressive and very convincing, in fact more convincing that it would probably look if done with modern CGI. Director William Witney does a competent job. With a script by the always interesting Richard Matheson Master of the World is really a surprisingly good movie. Great entertainment ad highly recommended.
MGM’s made-on-demand DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer.
Thursday, 2 May 2013
Two survivors of an Arctic exploration mission find an old sailing ship trapped in the ice. The ship has been there for a century. That’s extraordinary enough, but they also find one of the crew members frozen in the ice. When they thaw him out they discover that he is alive!
The man, Howard Hillary (Harry Houdini), had been the first mate of the ship on its last voyage in 1820. One of the men who found him is scientist Dr Gregory Sinclair. Sinclair decides not to tell Hillary the truth right away, as he fears that the shock of finding himself effectively transported in time for a century might be too much for him.
Hillary keeps asking what has happened to Felice. She was the woman he was in love with. She was a fellow passenger on that last fateful cruise in 1820.
Sinclair takes Hillary to the home of Dr Crawford Strange. When they arrive a wedding is about to take place between Dt Strange’s daughter Felice and a certain Dr Trent. Hillary is convinced that Felice is his own Felice, not realising that his Felice has been dead for a century. Hillary disrupts the wedding, which turns out not to be a bad thing. Felice Strange had been pressured into agreeing to a marriage she did not want.
Hillary has now made an enemy of Dr Trent. Dr Trent is the villain of the piece, the man responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Felice’s father, Dr Crawford Strange.
Dr Trent manages to get Hillary committed to an insane asylum but Hillary escapes (the movie thereby making use of Houdini’s skill as an escapologist). Hillary becomes more and more convinced that somehow Felice Strange really is his long-lost love Felice Norcross. Could it be that Felice Norcross has been reincarnated as Felice Strange?
The plot is pure melodrama but it’s fun. Houdini wrote the original story himself, as well as producing the movie and starring in it. The one major criticism that can be made against this movie is that it doesn’t really do enough with its central idea of a man who finds himself living a century ahead of his own time.
As an actor Houdini was rather limited but he’s capable enough for this sort of melodrama and he does have a certain presence.
Burton L. King was a prolific director in the silent era with a career going back as far as 1913. Modern audiences may find this movie to be a little stilted and perhaps too melodramatic but if you can accept it as melodrama
Imagine the worst DVD transfer you’ve ever seen and then multiply its flaws four-fold and you’ll have some idea of the sheer awfulness of Alpha Video’s presentation. Even by the very low standards of this company this disc is a shocker.
Houdini as the star makes The Man from Beyond an interesting historical curiosity, but fortunately it’s fairly entertaining as well. Worth a look.
Monday, 29 April 2013
After two years Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) has still not recovered from the death of her husband Paul. Walking along the beach on her way to a date with her current boyfriend Martin (Richard Carlson) she thinks she hears Paul’s voice calling to her. On the beach she encounters a mysterious stranger (played by Turhan Bey). His pet raven is a pretty sure sign that he has some connection with the occult. He seems to know all about Christine, in fact he knows things that no stranger could possibly know.
She later finds out that the stranger, whose name is Alexis, is a psychic. Her kid sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) is sure that this Alexis must be a fake. Janet and Martin hire a private detective to investigate him. The detective, Hoffmann (Harry Mendoza), used to be a stage magician. Like most professional illusionists he has an extreme dislike for phony psychics and there is nothing he enjoys more than exposing the tricks used by fake mediums. As he explains, he knows all their tricks.
We soon discover that Alexis is indeed a fake. But as fake psychics go he’s very good indeed. To be a success at that racket you need a considerable understanding of psychology and a great deal of charm. Alexis has both. Even though Janet is convinced he’s a charlatan she is still charmed by him. Even the private detective can’t help having a grudging respect for Alexis - he recognises that Alexis is a true pro. Alexis quickly attains an overwhelming influence on Christine. She is exactly the sort of woman who is vulnerable to such tricksters - she is emotional, she is troubled, and she is rich.
Alexis soon finds that he is not the only phony with his claws into Christine, and he becomes involved (not entirely willingly) in a sinister and dangerous plot. Both Christine and Janet are endangered.
The plot sounds a bit thin, and it is. Fortunately this movie is particularly well executed and it has several large pluses in its favour. The characters are exceptionally well-developed and complex. Janet knows with the rational part of her mind that Alexis is a fake but she can’t help being swept off her feet. Alexis is very complex indeed. He’s a phony and a swindler but he does have certain moral standards. There are some lines he will not cross, and the plot he finds himself involved crosses those lines. He can play along and make a great deal of money or he can do the decent thing for once and put himself at risk of exposure. Alexis himself does not know which choice he will make until the time comes when he must make a decision.
Turhan Bey is perfectly cast. He is suave and charming but without being irritating. We know Alexis is a crook but we can’t help liking him. It’s a nicely judged performance. Turhan Bey is careful never to allow Alexis to become a figure of fun. In fact the movie as a whole avoids playing the situation in the obvious way, which would have been for laughs.
Lynn Bari does a fine job as Christine, a character who could easily have come across as an airhead, but fortunately everyone concerned in this production took it seriously enough to avoid making any of the characters seem foolish. Cathy O’Donnell is pert and lively and generally charming as Janet. Harry Mendoza makes the most of his small role as the magician turned private detective. Donald Curtis is an effective villain.
The real star though is cinematographer John Alton. Genius is an over-worked word but there’s really no other way to describe Alton. The style of the movie is obviously inspired by Val Lewton’s successful series of horror movies made at RKO in the 40s, and Alton was a master of that kind of moody photography. He pulls off some wonderfully inventive shots, notably a shot where Janet is leaning over a sink and the camera appears to be shooting her from inside the sink. These kinds of camera tricks can be unnecessarily distracting but in a horror movie such as this they work extremely well, adding considerably to the atmosphere. This really is a superbly photographed movie. Alton also does some impressive deep-focus work.
Sadly Image Entertainment’s DVD doesn’t really do full justice to Alton’s cinematography. There’s a lot of print damage, although luckily apart from this the picture quality is pretty good.
The Amazing Mr X is a movie that could very easily be overlooked, and to a great extent that’s been its fate. It’s a thoroughly charming and highly enjoyable movie with a nice mix of spookiness, suspense and romance. Highly recommended.
Friday, 26 April 2013
Four young people on holiday discover an unknown island. They’re bored so they decide to investigate. The skipper of their boat, a drunk known as Tony, discovers too late that they’ve made a landing on the island in the dinghy. If he hadn’t been drunk again he’d have warned them not to set foot on the island.
Johnny (Robert Reed), Pete (Eugene Persson), Betty (June Kenney) and Jeanne (Joan Lora) soon find evidence that the island is not uninhabited as they’d first thought. They are taken at gunpoint to a large house where they meet the owner of the island, Dr Albert Balleau (Wilton Graff). They are then told about Dr Balleau’s hobby. He likes to hunt, but hunting animals no longer interests him. During the war he’d been a sniper and he’d discovered the pleasure of hunting the most dangerous game of all, man.
Johnny and Pete are to be his next trophies, to be hunted, killed and then stuffed and mounted and placed in a niche in the trophy room.
Dr Balleau’s wife Sandra (Lilyan Chauvin) and her alcoholic admirer Dean (Walter Brooke) also live on the island. They’ve been wanting to escape for a year and now they see their chance. They will try to reach the boats moored in a hidden cove on the far side of the island while Johnny and Pete keep Dr Balleau occupied. It’s a good plan, but not good enough.
Dr Balleau believes in giving his prey a sporting chance. He is to hunt Johnny, Pete and Tony and he takes with only three quarrels for his crossbow, one for each of them. And he gives them a gun, containing one bullet, so they have one chance to kill him first. Since Dr Balleau knows the jungles on the island like the back of his hand it’s not much of a chance, but it is better than nothing.
Dr Balleau and his assistant Jondor (Bobby Hall) now set out on the hunt.
Robert Reed (best known as Mike Brady in TV’s The Brady Bunch) seems like an unlikely action hero. He gives it his best shot but he’s not very convincing. The one actor whose performance stands out is Wilton Graff. He plays his role like a poor man’s Vincent Price. He’s not terribly scary but he is at least entertaining.
Writer-producer-director Ralph Brooke made only a handful of movies before his death in 1963 at the age of 43. Considering the very low budget he has to work with he does a competent enough job.
The low budget doesn’t really detract from the story too much. The sets are basic but functional and the hunting scenes, although obviously done in a studio, look reasonable. The pacing is rather slow, so even with its modest 68-minute running time it feels like it’s been padded out.
The violence is about as graphic as you could get away with in 1961, with some moderately gruesome dissection scenes and the odd severed head.
This movie is included in Mill Creek’s Drive-In Cult Classics collection. The movie is presented fullframe which is apparently the correct aspect ratio. By Mill Creek standards it’s a fairly reasonable print. The movie was made in black-and-white. Picture and sound quality are both acceptable.
Bloodlust! is not by any means a good movie but if you accept it as a low-budget drive-in thriller it’s not as bad as you might expect, and Wilton Graff is amusing. Worth a rental if you’re curious to see Mike Brady as an action hero.
Tuesday, 23 April 2013
The casting is another feature that makes this movie’s debt to the past very obvious. Basil Rathbone, Bel Lugosi, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr had all starred in Universal horror films. In 1956 that might have been a weakness but to modern fans of classic horror movies it’s a distinct plus.
Basil Rathbone is Sir Joel Cadman, famous as a very distinguished surgeon, but in reality a mad scientist. It is 1872. Dr Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) had been a pupil of Cadman, but now he lies in Newgate Prison awaiting execution for the murder of a money lender. Cadman visits him in his cell the night before the execution and gives him a drug to drink in the morning. He tells him it is a strong sedative that will allow him to endure the horror he is about to face.
When next we see Dr Ramsay he is in his coffin, but he is not dead. Sir Joel revives him and informs him that it is the morning after his execution. The sentence had not been carried out because Dr Ramsay had been fund apparently dead in his cell. But he was not dead. The drug Sir Joel had given him was the Black Sleep, a drug that produces a state of suspended animation indistinguishable from death. He has saved Dr Ramsay’s life, and Dr Ramsay is now to be his assistant.
Cadman is conducting experiments on the brain. He is unquestionably a genius and has gone further than any previous researcher in unlocking the secrets of the brain. Apart from his scientific curiosity he has another reason for his zeal to discover the brain’s secrets - his wife lies in a coma, the victim of a brain tumour. Cadman hopes to use his knowledge to save her. Cadman is aided by the gypsy Odo (Akim Tamiroff) who supplies him with subjects for his experiments.
The secret laboratory of Sir Joel Cadman is soon revealed to be a chamber of horrors, inhabited by the pathetic shells of men and women who had been subjects of his experiments. Men like the great Dr Munroe, now a shambling murderous monster known as Mungo (Lon Chaney Jr). There are other secrets hidden in Cadman’s laboratory, secrets that have great relevance to Dr Ramsay’s own awkward position.
Dr Ramsay had initially been grateful to Cadman for saving his life, but after discovering the nature of Cadman’s researches he is filled with horror. But what can he do? He cannot go to the authorities since that would mean that he would face execution. He must continue to aid Cadman in his experiments whilst hoping for an opportunity to escape from this nightmare.
While Lugosi, Chaney and Carradine share top billing with Rathbone and Tamiroff, the real star is Basil Rathbone. He has by far the most important, and also the most interesting, part. He makes a splendid mad scientist. It’s an understated performance, which makes it all the more chilling. Sir Joel Cadman is a man of science, a humane and civilised man, who also happens to be quite mad.
This is classic mad scientist stuff, with Sir Joel Cadman belonging to the sub-category of mad scientists who started out as sincere seekers after knowledge who somewhere along the way lost the plot and became, without realising it, monsters.
Tamiroff has fun as the gypsy. Lon Chaney gets little to do apart from shuffling about and trying to strangle people. Poor Bela Lugosi gets little more than a non-speaking bit part. In 1956 he had to take any work he could get but it’s still sad to see him reduced to such insignificant roles. John Carradine’s role is also small but he makes the most of it, overacting outrageously as one of Cadman’s patients who is convinced he is Bohemond the crusader, on the way to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens.
Director Reginald Le Borg does a competent job. The visual style of the movie is clearly inspired by the classic Universal horror movies, and that’s no bad thing. The sets look reasonably impressive and in general the movie looks better than you’d expect given its low budget.
The Black Sleep has been released by MGM as a made-on-demand DVD. It’s shamefully overpriced but it’s a nice enough print although it would have been even nicer if they’d released it in its correct aspect ratio. As it is this is probably the only opportunity you’re going to get to see this movie so such minor annoyances have to be overlooked.
The Black Sleep is thoroughly entertaining gothic horror and is highly recommended.