Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Whispering Shadow (serial, 1933)

The Whispering Shadow is a 1933 thirteen-part Mascot serial starring Bela Lugosi. It’s a crime thriller with some elements of science fiction and of the fantastic thrown in, and with a hint of the gothic as well.

The Empire Transport and Storage Company has carved out its own market niche. It’s a trucking company but with some very high-tech features. The trucks are in constant communication with the central warehouse by radio-phone. The system seems fool-proof but unfortunately in practice it’s proving to be worryingly vulnerable. Four Empire trucks have been hijacked recently with fatal results for the drivers involved. A sinister figure knows as the Whispering Shadow is believed to be behind the hijackings. There is no real explanation as to why those particular trucks were targeted.

When another trucks is attacked and the kid brother of chief dispatcher Jack Foster (Malcolm McGregor) is killed the company decides to get serious. They hire the celebrated detective Robert Raymond (Robert Warwick) to take over security.

There’s an extraordinary amount of plot packed into the first episode, not to mention several action set-pieces. Several intriguing characters are introduced - such as jewel thief Jasper Slade and magician Professor Strang (Bela Lugosi). There are cool gadgets. There’s a shadow that speaks. There’s a wax museum. There’s a prison breakout. There’s a full-scale attack on the company’s headquarters - by autogyro! There’s a death ray! There are at least half a dozen very suspicious characters. And it’s paced like a speeding locomotive.

It all has something to do with the most fabulous of all jewel collections, the jewels of the Tsar of Russia.

The pacing doesn’t flag at all. There’s no time wasted on extended dialogue scenes. Any exposition that needs to be done is done at a run. Then it’s time for more action.

The central mystery is the identity of the Whispering Shadow and that mystery is fairly well concealed. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s going to be Bela Lugosi - he did several serials and did not always play villains. There are several other very strong suspects. There’s some fairly good misdirection in this serial with all sorts of clues that point to different suspects.

The misdirection is not just to do with the Whispering Shadow’s identity. There seem to be a lot of people after those jewels, some of whom think they have legitimate claims and some of whom are obviously merely crooks. There are political agendas and it’s not clear precisely who is working for whom. The plot twists are actually reasonably nifty.

The Whispering Shadow is a diabolical criminal mastermind with access to terrifying and murderous technologies such as television. He is also a master of radio technology which is of course invaluable for killing one’s enemies at a distance. This particular serial is a celebration of technology's potential for mayhem!

There are too many flashbacks but you have to remember that you’re supposed to watch a serial like this over a period of twelve weeks, in which case the flashbacks would probably be quite useful. Modern viewers often make the mistake of watching an entire serial over a period of just three or four nights. It doesn’t really work. I try to watch no more than one episode per night and to take a few breaks so that I usually end up watching a twelve-episode serial over a period of maybe two-and-a-half weeks. It makes it a lot more fun.

The acting is very much in the hyper-active B-movie melodrama mode but that’s as it should be in a serial. Malcolm McGregor does make a pretty fair square-jawed action hero. Viva Tattersall overacts delightfully as Professor Strange’s daughter Vera.

The Alpha Video DVD release, on two discs, is unfortunately rather poor. Sound quality is adequate but image quality is definitely not good. On the other hand the other available versions are either public domain or grey market so there’s no reason to think they’d be any better. The Alpha Video release is watchable and if you’re a fan of serials it’s worth putting up with the less-than-stellar picture quality.

If you’re not a fan of serials than The Whispering Shadow is probably not the best place to start. But if you are a fan of serials you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Knight Rider 2000 TV-movie (1991)

The 1991 TV-movie Knight Rider 2000 was shot as the pilot for what was hoped would be a new series based (albeit a little loosely) on the 1980s hit series Knight Rider. Knight Rider 2000 failed to capture anyone’s imagination, it was not picked up as a series and it seems to be generally disliked by fans of the original Knight Rider series.

Despite this it does have some limited interest for cult movie fans and it is a bit more overtly science fictional than the original television series, with a futuristic rather than a contemporary setting.

For what it's worth here’s the link to my review of Knight Rider 2000 at Cult TV Lounge.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Green Archer (1961)

The West German film industry was largely kept afloat from the late 50s to the end of the 60s by the extraordinary popularity of the Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, known as krimis. These were made in vast numbers. They were made by several studios but it is generally considered that the best of the krimis were the ones made by Rialto Studios.

The Green Archer (Der grüne Bogenschütze), made by Rialto in 1961, is one of the best known films in the series. It was the only Edgar Wallace krimi directed by Jürgen Roland.

Edgar Wallace had been an incredibly popular writer in the early decades of the 20th century but for some reason he was particularly favoured by German readers, and film adaptations of his works were particularly favoured by German movie audiences. German thriller fans just could not get enough of Wallace’s outrageous and lurid style and his and convoluted multi-layered plots.

The Green Archer is classic Edgar Wallace. A rich American, Abel Bellamy (Gert Fröbe), owns a castle in England. Naturally the castle has a ghost, but this ghost is more interesting than most. The Green Archer had been a notorious medieval outlaw but although he is long dead his ghost remains very active.

Abel Bellamy apparently has a very colourful past which he is not anxious to talk about. He is particularly anxious not to discuss his past with his new neighbours, the Howetts. This is awkward since Valerie Howett (Karin Dor) would very much like to discuss Bellamy’s past with him. Bellamy claims to have no family but this is most certainly untrue.

There are other plot strands that initially appear to have no connection with each other. These other plot strands include the activities of the Green Archer himself, and all seem to lead directly or indirectly back to Abel Bellamy.

This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation there are of course secret passageways and hidden doorways. In fact there’s a veritable secret world beneath Abel Bellamy’s castle. It’s not easy gaining access to this world. Getting out again is even more difficult.

There are plenty of colourful characters and quite a few very delightfully sinister figures, especially the extremely creepy Coldharbour Smith.

The action keeps rolling along and the climax is suitably outrageous and overblown and thoroughly enjoyable.

Despite the complications of the plot Jürgen Roland does a fine job holding things together. At times the movie threatens to collapse under the weight of its own complexity but it doesn’t.

Gert Fröbe is best known to English-speaking audiences as Goldfinger in the film of the same name. He was a terrific actor and he is in splendid form here. He’s definitely the star act here.

Karin Dor makes a fine determined (and very attractive) heroine. Eddi Arendt as usual provides comic relief as television reporter Spike Holland, who finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. Eddi Arendt in an acquired taste but he was a fixture in these films and he’s really rather restrained and quite good in this movie.

Klausjürgen Wussow is the ostensible hero although it takes us a while to figure that out.

Like all the German Edgar Wallace krimis The Green Archer is supposedly set in England. The English locations are totally unconvincing but that doesn’t mater. I like to think that these movies take place in their own alternate reality. It’s an England of the imagination.

One thing you learn when you become a fan of these movies is that it’s best to give up any fantasies you might have of seeing them presented beautifully restored and in anamorphic transfers. It’s not going to happen. As with other European cult movies (such as peplums and eurospy movies) you learn to be grateful to see them at all. While the Sinister Cinema edition of The Green Archer is fullframe it is at least a pretty good print and the chances of a better English-friendly version ever seeing the light of day are just about zero. This is as good as it’s going to get and luckily it’s quite acceptable.

The Green Archer is total insanity and it’s great fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

my favourite movie serials

It’s been suggested that I should do a post on my favourite movie serials. So here goes. I’m not going to try to rank them - the serials I’m listing here were all good and all enormous fun. I've provided links here to my full reviews.

King of the Wild (1931), an absolutely outrageous and wonderfully fast-paced Mascot serial with Boris Karloff, guys in gorilla suits, exotic settings in Darkest Africa and the Mysterious East and unbelievable amounts of inspired lunacy. Unbelievably political incorrect.

Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), an excellent Republic serial and a treat for fans of diabolical criminal masterminds bent on wold domination and yes it’s also unbelievably political incorrect.

Flash Gordon (1936), probably the most expensive serial ever made. The Universal science fiction serials were all good but this is the best of them. And in Ming the Merciless it has one of the great screen villains.

Spy Smasher (1942). If it’s a Republic serial directed by William Witney you know you’re in for a treat. Made on a much more modest budget than Universal’s serials but it manages to look very impressive. Incredibly entertaining.

The Mysterious Dr Satan (1940). Another Republic serial. This one has killer robots, a mad scientist and a mysterious masked crime-fighter. Lots of enjoyment to be had here.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe was the third and last of Universal’s insanely successful Flash Gordon serials, being released in 1940.

And it's straight into the action! Earth is being devastated by the Purple Death, a deadly plague. The cause is unknown until Dr Zarkov establishes that it’s spread by a dust and the dust is dropped by spaceships from another planet. Dr Zarkov, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden set off for the planet Mongo to investigate. On arrival there they find that the Emperor Ming is still very much alive and he’s up to his old tricks again.

Flash and his party join up with their old friend and ally Prince Barin.

Ming’s death dust is bad enough but his scientists have come up with an evil new twist - a death dust that only kills intelligent strong-willed people (the sorts of people who might pose a threat to Ming’s authority) but it spares unintelligent weak-willed people (who make useful slaves).

Ming has acquired a new enemy, Queen Fria. Which means Flash has acquired a new ally. Fria’s icy kingdom of Frigia is vital since it is the only source of the antidote to Ming’s death dust. But no-one born outside her kingdom can survive the bitter cold there - unless Dr Zarkov can find a way to counteract the cold.

Flash and his party face all manner of terrors including Ming’s dreaded mechanical men - not just unstoppable robots but walking bombs.

Of course there will be many more perils to face, and for Dale Arden the greatest peril of all - Ming the Merciless intends to compel her to be his bride!

There’s plenty of treachery and countless narrow escapes for Flash and his friends. Having survived the peril of murderous cold he will have to face unquenchable fires. Naturally Dale Arden gets captured several times. As well as rescuing Dale Flash will have to rescue Ming’s own daughter Princess Aura who has incurred her father’s wrath by marrying his rival Prince Barin.

Quite a few secret weapons make their appearance. The climax will come with the discovery of Ming’s greatest secret of all, which Flash will have to find a way to counter.

Science fiction was by no means a new genre in the late 30s but science fiction writers were still tying to get a handle on ways to deal with alien races. A few writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, had tried to imagine truly alien-looking aliens but it was still extremely common for alien races to be simply humans wearing funny costumes. That’s mostly the approach adopted in the Flash Gordon serials. The rock people seem like an attempt to do more bizarre aliens, until we find out the slightly disappointing truth about them.

Barin’s people are ordinary humans but they dress like Robin Hood’s Merrie Men and carry longbows. These serials have a certain comic-opera feel to them, and also a slight Ruritanian flavour. In fact at times there’s quite a strong flavour of Victorian adventure fiction in the Rider Haggard manner. It’s a weird mix of aesthetic influences but it’s charming and it works. In fact the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials created their very own science fiction aesthetic.

Carol Hughes takes over from Jean Rogers as Dale Arden. She is perhaps not quiue as god as her predecessor. Larry “Buster” Crabbe was at best a moderately competent actor but he was the perfect star for these serials. He was the square-jawed action hero with a great deal of likeability and plenty of charisma and he throw himself into the rôle with commendable dedication.

Charles Middleton gave us one of the great screen villains in the Emperor Ming. Again there’s the odd mix of influences - his performance is outrageously stagey and straight out of a Victorian melodrama but it’s immense fun. Ming also clearly owes a lot to Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu.

The formula is the same one that worked so well in the two earlier Flash Gordon serials. Why change a formula that is working so splendidly?

Universal’s serials were not necessarily the best serials. Some of the Republic serials, such as Spy Smasher, were arguably more exciting and more inventive. It has to be admitted though that Universal’s efforts were extremely good, probably the best actual science fiction serials, and they were certainly the most expensive. They were not made on A-picture budgets but the studio still spend some serious money and Universal’s efforts have a certain gloss to them. Universal didn’t have the kind of money MGM had but they were still a major studio and their science fiction serials were like their gothic horror movies - much more visually ambitious and visually successful than similar efforts by rival studios. Universal weren’t good at everything but what they did well they tended to do very very well indeed.

The gadgetry is delightful - it’s not just outrageous and campy but it manages to be both genuinely campy and genuinely cool. This is what happens when you let loose the art department of a major studio that has already established itself as a specialist in gothic horror and science fiction - you tend to get bold but extremely good results.

Mention should also be made of the spaceships. In the late 1930s no-one had the slightest idea what a spaceship would look like. Most importantly they had no idea what a spacecraft would look like inside. The interiors of these spaceships look like a cross between the crew compartments of a dirigible airship, the flight deck of an airliner and the control room of a submarine.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Count Dracula (TV, 1977)

Count Dracula, the BBC’s 1977 TV version of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, is very much a mixed bag. It has the reputation of being the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which really goes to illustrate the pitfalls of faithful adaptations.

I’m sure there’s no need to say anything about the plot, other than to note that the main change from the novel is that Mina and Lucy are now sisters, and Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are combined into one character (Quincey Holmwood).

There are quite a few problems with this production. We’ll start with the most minor ones first. Richard Barnes as Quincey Holmwood is catastrophically bad. Even I can tell that his Texan accent is outrageously wrong and I’ve never been to Texas, and he’s a terrible actor. Bosco Hogan as Jonathan Harker isn’t much better. In fact for a BBC production the acting in general is surprisingly poor. Frank Finlay is an annoying and uninteresting van Helsing. Susan Penhaligon as Lucy is mostly extremely good, but for some unknown reason it was decided that when she became vampirised she’d become a snarling animal trying to do an impression of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The result is embarrassing for all concerned.

Much bigger problems arise from the attempt to stay close to the novel. Let’s be honest, despite its classic status and its undoubted power, as a novel Dracula is a formless mess. The excessively long running time of 150 minutes exacerbates other weaknesses of the book - it’s too long and badly paced. And the title character is really only a bit player in his own story. Stoker just about gets away with that because the influence of Dracula permeates the whole novel, but in a TV or movie it’s a real problem. One popular solution to this is to place the focus on van Helsing, but this one adopts the  unique approach of making Renfield more or less the central character. The ideal solution is to put the focus on Lucy and Mina, but oddly enough this has rarely been done in a Dracula movie and this one is no exception -  the two potentially most interesting characters remain undeveloped.

There are other problems. The special effects rely heavily on solarisation which gives it a very dated feel, and while the sets are reasonably good they’re not especially interesting. There are one or two inspired visual moments though, particularly the scene with the cross  outlined by light on Dracula’s face.The class hostility which is one of the central concerns of the novel, the fear and hatred felt by the rising middle class towards what they saw as the decaying and immoral aristocracy, is also sadly unexplored.

Set against these flaws are several major strengths. Focusing on Renfield turned out to be a masterstroke. This is the most complex, most human and most sympathetic Renfield ever. This is helped by Jack Shepherd’s superb acting (he’s even better in the role than Klaus Kinski). And Renfield serves a real purpose, with the battle between good and evil and between body and soul fought out inside this one unfortunate individual.

Louis Jourdan is rather good as Dracula. He’s genuinely sexy, and he’s a very sympathetic figure. Another plus is the unexpectedly erotic charge that this production has. If Lucy wasn’t having an orgasm the first time the Count bit her she was definitely giving a very convincing impression of a woman having an orgasm. Mina’s response to Dracula’s attentions is equally sexual. The Count offers Lucy and Mina sexual bliss and eternal life, eternal life with a very good-looking and utterly charming nobleman. It seems like a pretty good deal to me, and a lot better than what the good guys are offering them. This makes it all the sadder that the characters of the two women aren’t explored in more depth.

This version also puts more emphasis than usual on the religious aspects of the struggle between the opposing parties, with Renfield used to highlight the fact that the fundamental issue is a choice between body and soul. It’s a valid approach, although it would have been more convincing if the other characters seemed to share Renfield’s concern with the significance of the soul, and if they really appeared conscious of the spiritual dimensions of the fight they were waging.

The fact that Dracula isn’t portrayed as a monster does serve as an advantage, since it makes the struggle less clearcut. Although perhaps it ends up by making it too difficult to feel any real sympathy at all for the vampire hunters.

Despite its faults this version is worth a look. Jack Shepherd’s performance as Renfield is sufficient on its own to make it worth seeing. And if you like your vampires charming and sexy then you’re going to love Louis Jourdan.

Despite a few reservations this one is recommended.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Sandokan the Great (1963)

Sandokan the Great is a rollicking and rather stylish adventure tale of pirates but with a number of features that make it quite different from the usual run of pirates movies. Firstly the action takes place in the South China Sea and the jungles of Borneo, a long long way from the Spanish Main. And secondly, the British are very much the bad guys.

This 1963 Italian/French/Spanish co-production was directed by Umberto Lenzi and was based on the first of the Sandokan novels, The Tigers of Mompracem, by 19th century Italian writer Emilio Salgari.

Steve Reeves stars as the brave and daring Malay pirate Sandokan. With Reeves as the star you might be expecting this to be a kind of peplum but with a 19th century setting and perhaps that’s not all that far from the mark.

The plot of the movie is only loosely based on the novel but it captures the spirit quite effectively. Sandokan’s father is the rajah of a small principality in Borneo but he has been deposed by the British who intend to execute him. Sandokan has no intention of allowing them to get away with that sort of thing and if stopping them means taking on the might of the British Empire then that’s how it’s going to be.

Sandokan’s first move is a raid on the fortified house of the British commander at Fort VIctoria, Lord Guillonk. He kidnaps Lord Guillonk’s niece Mary Ann. She is outraged by the thought of being kidnapped by pirates. On the other hand Sandokan is very handsome and very dashing and pirates are kinda sexy so maybe being kidnapped isn’t quite so bad as it seemed at first.

Sandokan’s right-hand man, the Portuguese adventurer Yanez (Andrea Bosic), also points out to her (quite correctly) that given the nature of British colonial policy the British are in no position to complain about the ethics of piracy. And since they did murder most of Sandokan’s family it’s perhaps not surprising that Sandokan is not a fan of the British. Yanez also points out that Sandokan’s followers have been forced into piracy by the policies of the European colonial powers. This little scene is important because Sandokan is the hero of the film and we need to know that he is one of the good guys.

Sandokan is now being hunted by Lord Guillonk’s men and he sets off to cross the island, which means braving unexplored swamps and jungles, a challenging enough feat but even more difficult with Mary Ann in tow and with Yanez not fully recovered from a bullet wound.

The Sandokan of the novel is an inspiring and charismatic leader but also impulsive and inclined to errors of judgment. He’s a lot more mercurial than his film counterpart. Steve Reeves has decided instead to go for dignity and quiet authority. It’s a perfectly valid approach and his performance is more than adequate. In fact it’s pretty good. There are some hints of Sandokan’s chronic over-confidence - his plan to cross the island in the face of impassable swamps and headhunters was not a terrifically great idea. Sandokan’s men have absolute confidence in him but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he always knows what he’s doing.

Geneviève Grad as Mary Ann is a likeable enough heroine. Leo Anchóriz is suitably malevolent as the dastardly villainous Lord Guillonk.

Although this is a pirate movie there are no sea battles. Presumably the budget wasn’t sufficient to contemplate anything so ambitious. The main problem is that the pacing drags a bit in the middle. On the other hand when the action starts to pick up towards the end it’s worth the wait. The final battle scenes are quite spectacular.

What is particularly impressive is the way the fortunes of war keep swinging wildly back and forth in the last portion of the film. Every time things are looking up for Sandokan it all falls apart again and then just when it’s obviously entirely hopeless his uncanny luck kicks in and he’s back on top again. It’s all suitably nail-biting but it’s more than that. While by this stage the movie has long since abandoned the plot of the novel these outrageous swings of fortune are totally consistent with the Sandokan of the novel. There is nothing rational or calculating about him - he’s a man who is always prepared to put his faith in fate. If God wills it he will survive and keep fighting. His absolute fatalism makes him a fascinatingly non-European style of hero.

Director Umberto Lenzi tried his hand at just about every low-budget genre at some stage (and he would return to jungle settings in controversial fashion with his cannibal movies  later in his career). He does a solid if not overly inspiring job here. The location shooting in Sri Lanka is impressive. It gives the movie an authentically exotic feel.

The danger with the anti-colonialist message (which is there in Salgari’s novel as well) is the very real danger of succumbing to excessive preachiness. That’s something I always intensely dislike in any film, whether I agree with the message or not. I don’t find it to be a problem here, possibly because the British are depicted as over-the-top melodrama villains.

While most of the plot points are clear enough it probably is an advantage if you’re familiar with the books. Salgari was, and to some extent still is, extremely popular on the Continent and there had been several earlier movies based on his books so the screenwriters probably assumed that most European viewers would have some acquaintance with Sandokan.

The Warner Archive DVD-R offers an extremely nice anamorphic transfer and that’s important because this movie, shot in Technicolor and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio, relies a great deal on the gorgeous location photography.

Sandokan the Great has some major things in its favour, namely the unusual and exotic setting and the even more unusual and exotic hero. These things, along with the bravura extended action finale, are enough to compensate for a few minor problems of pacing an coherence. On the whole this is an enjoyable adventure flick. Highly recommended.