Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Last Grenade (1970)


The mercenary action movie was a very small sub-genre that perhaps surprisingly produced two great movies, Dark of the Sun (1968) and The Wild Geese (1978). Sadly The Last Grenade doesn’t even come close to the quality of those films although it did have definite potential.

Major Harry Grigsby (Stanley Baker) and Kip Thompson (Alex Cord) are mercenaries in Africa. Thompson betrays Grigsby and kills most of his men in the process. This betrayal provides the movie’s best moments in the form of the superb action set-piece that opens the movie, with a truly stupendous number of explosions.

Grigsby wants revenge and he gets the chance when the British government hires him to hunt Thompson down and kill him. Thompson has been causing them major problems in Hong Kong. The British want him dead but they don’t want to be seen to be involved. General Charles Whiteley (Richard Attenborough) will give Grigsby as much assistance as possible, on an unofficial basis of course.

Grigsby teams up with his old comrades Sergeant Gordon Mackenzie (Andrew Keir), Andy Royal (Julian Glover) and Terry MItchell (John Thaw). His plans for revenge don’t exactly go smoothly. In fact they go very badly and Grigsby ends up in hospital in Hong Kong.


Grigsby is a very sick man. He has tuberculosis and he knows time is running out for him. While recuperating he and General Whiteley’s wife Katherine (Honor Blackman) fall in love and begin an affair. It’s at this point that the movie loses its way badly. The romantic sub-plot does serve an important purpose in advancing the plot but unfortunately it does so in a very obvious and predictable manner, and the romantic scenes are clumsy, unconvincing and tedious.

Oddly enough, rather than humanising the hero the romance ends up making him both less sympathetic and less convincing - Grigsby doesn’t really seem the type to steal another man’s wife in such an underhanded and sleazy manner. On the other hand while I would hazard a guess that we’re supposed to see Katherine Whiteley as a free spirit trapped in a dull marriage to me she comes across as being exactly the sort of woman who would betray her husband.


The romance also brings the main plot to a standstill, and it never regains its momentum.

On the plus side there’s the strong cast. Stanley Baker has the charisma to carry off the rôle of Grigsby in fine style. Andrew Keir, John Thaw and Julian Glover provide fine support although the latter two are unfortunately rather under-used. Richard Attenborough manages to bring both the necessary pomposity and the necessary dignity to his performance as General Whiteley. Honor Blackman does her best and it’s hardly her fault that her character serves little purpose.

The weak link is Alex Cord’s ham-fisted performance as Kip Thompson. He’s an odd character for such a film - a crazed drug-addled hippie mercenary. Cord’s performance is hopelessly muddled and unconvincing.


The contrast between Grigsby, the old school professional soldier who (despite being a mercenary) has old-fashioned notions of honour and loyalty, and the calculatingly cynical but deranged Thompson could have been interesting. Unfortunately Thompson never becomes more than a cartoon villain.

Director Gordon Flemyng spent most of his career in television. While he shows considerable skill in handling the action sequences the movie suffers from very poor pacing and whenever the focus shifts away from the action it becomes dull and lifeless.


The biggest problem is that while the action scenes are good there aren’t enough of them. In particular the ending falls very flat - we assume it’s all leading up to a spectacular climax but it just doesn’t happen.

Scorpio Releasing have issued some rather interesting 1960s and 1970s cult films on DVD and they’ve done a pretty fair job with The Last Grenade. Picture quality is mostly very good. There are no extras.

In spite of a few good moments The Last Grenade is on the whole a disappointment - it goes off not with a bang but a whimper. Maybe worth a look if you’re a very dedicated Stanley Baker fan.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Shadow of the Cat (1961)


Shadow of the Cat is a 1961 British gothic horror movie that is almost a Hammer film. It was shot at Bray Studios, it was directed by John Gilling who went on to make some of Hammer’s best 60s horror films, it stars Barbara Shelley, it was photographed by Arthur Grant and the production design was by Bernard Robinson. Officially, and for complex legal and financial reasons, it was credited to BHP Productions but it was in fact a Hammer film in all but name.

On the other hand it’s also very different to the usual run of Hammer gothic horror movies. More on that later.

Ella Venable has mysteriously disappeared. Actually there’s nothing mysterious about it - the audience knows right from the word go that Ella has been the victim of foul play. There was only one witness to the crime - Ella’s cat Tabitha. Now you might think that a killer has nothing to worry about when the only witness is a cat. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. 

Tabitha is not exactly a helpless little kitty. Ordinarily she’s the friendliest of felines but she doesn’t take kindly to having her mistress murdered. She wants revenge. And for a small tabby cat she’s rather determined.

Ella’s husband Walter (André Morell) has called Ella’s niece to the house, partly to give her the bad news that Ella wrote her out of her will shortly before her disappearance. Walter has also assembled other family members - the three most disreputable members of the family. He needs help in order to deal with a formidable menace - one small tabby cat. Walter has his faithful butler Andrew but although Andrew is a strong healthy young man he’s no match for an enraged and vengeful feline.


One interesting, and clever, feature of this film is that the cat’s actions are somewhat ambiguous. The murderers certainly believe the cat is actively plotting to get them. But does the cat actually have supernatural (or at least preternatural) powers? Or has Tabitha simply seen something horrific and is she is now merely behaving the way any animal might behave, striking out instinctively at people who have frightened her? We do get some intriguing cat point-of-view shots that imply that the cat has a more-than-animal understanding of the situation but even here she could be just fixating on something that has disturbed her animal mind. There’s a memorable scene where Walter is stalking the cat in the basement but we have the distinct impression that it’s really the cat who is stalking him. This ambiguity works quite effectively - is it the cat seeking revenge or the killers’ own consciences haunting them?

Hammer made movies in black-and-white but their gothic horror movies were invariably in colour. This was what gave them their distinctive flavour - gothic atmosphere achieved with bold lush colour rather than moody black-and-white. Shadow of the Cat is however in black-and-white. This, among other things, makes it seem old-fashioned compared to the typical Hammer gothics. One thing is immediately apparent - director Gilling and cinematographer Arthur Grant can make a black-and-white horror movie look every bit as good as a colour film. They can use shadows just as effectively as they used bold colour in other Hammer productions. If you’re a fan of the classic Universal style of black-and-white gothic horror you will be well satisfied with the job they’ve done here.


The movie opens with a shot of the decaying gothic mansion of the Venables. It is your typical gothic dark and stormy night, and an old lady is reading Poe aloud. This again emphasises the movie’s affinity with the classic American horror cinema of the 1930s. 

Another point of departure from the regular Hammer style is the setting. It’s Edwardian England rather than 19th century central Europe, with cars as well as carriages.

Barbara Shelley was one of the great scream queens and she gives her usual fine performance. André Morell, a splendid actor, is wonderful as the irascible but very frightened Walter. The other cast members are excellent but it’s Shelley and Morell who dominate the movie.


This movie is at times reminiscent of the Old Dark House movies that were so popular in the 1930s. The atmosphere and the setup are both similar and it has a lot of the same ingredients - a group of people who don’t trust one another thrown together in a crumbling gothic pile, a plot driven by scheming relatives after an inheritance, suggestions of the supernatural that may turn out to be no more than suspicions.

Apart from its gothic trappings Shadow of the Cat has a lot more in common with Hammer’s black-and-white contemporary psychological thrillers of the early 60s than with their gothic horror movies.


One criticism that has been leveled at this movie is that a small domestic cat is not a very scary monster. That criticism misses the point. In fact the key to the movie is that it’s a psychological horror movie not a monster movie. The cat is not the monster. The monsters are human. The cat is merely the catalyst (if you’ll excuse my awful pun) that triggers the killers’ own feelings of guilt and anxiety.

On the subject of the cat special mention must be made of the cat’s trainer, John Holmes. This is not the kind of movie in which the cat just has to sit on a cushion looking cute. She’s not a bit player, she’s one of the leads and she has to do some serious acting! Getting the cat to do what was needed on cue must have been quite a challenge but however they did it it worked.

Network have done their customary very creditable job with the DVD. Picture quality is superb. Unusually for Network there are some worthwhile extras including an excellent documentary on the film.

Shadow of the Cat is not at all a typical Hammer production but it’s a well-crafted and generally very nifty little horror flick. It is a throwback to an earlier era of horror, which may be one of the reasons it’s been so often overlooked. The old-fashioned feel is however quite deliberate and today it makes this film seem quite refreshing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Meteor (1979)


Meteor was one of the last of the 1970s disaster movies. In some ways it’s the most ambitious of all - the fate of the entire planet is at stake. Unfortunately it combines high ambitions with a limited budget and woefully inadequate special effects.

Dr Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) is a former NASA scientist who is urgently summoned to deal with a crisis. A very big crisis. A new comet had been spotted a week or so earlier. Nothing surprising in that, new comets appear regularly. This one was headed for the Asteroid Belt and as luck would have it the Americans had a manned space probe already on its way to Mars. NASA’s chief thought it would be a cool idea to divert the probe to get a good look at the comet. They ended up getting much too close a look as the comet ploughed into one of the larger asteroids, Orpheus. The asteroid broke up and now the fragments are headed towards Earth. One of these fragments is rather large - about five miles across - and it appears to be on a collision course with Earth.

Dr Bradley’s help is wanted because he was the man behind Project Hercules, a satellite armed with fourteen nuclear missiles designed for the specific purpose of dealing with just such an emergency. Unfortunately the decision was taken that rather than have the missiles aimed into outer space so they could intercept rogue asteroids they should instead be aimed at the Soviet Union. Now NASA needs someone who can realign the satellite to shoot down that pesky asteroid.

Dr Bradley reaches the worrying conclusion that fourteen nukes will not be enough to stop the asteroid. If only they had another nuclear-armed satellite! In fact there is another such satellite. The Soviets have one. The Soviets have never admitted that their Peter the Great satellite exists, but then the Americans have never admitted that Hercules exists either.

The obvious thing to do is to talk to the Russians. Since the Russians are also well aware of the approaching asteroid it isn’t too hard to get them to agree to send the astrophysicist responsible for the design of their satellite to the US to consult with Dr Bradley. Dr Dubov (Brian Keith) assures Dr Bradley that the Russians have no such satellite but speaking entirely hypothetically if they had built such a satellite it would have been armed with sixteen missiles and it would indeed have been placed in orbit exactly where the Americans believe it to be. And yes, purely hypothetically of course, it would then be possible to combine the striking power of Peter the Great and Hercules. And yes, he would be quite happy to give Dr Bradley the necessary information to realign this hypothetical satellite to aim its missiles at the asteroid.

Dr Dubov had been accompanied to the US by his trusted assistant and interpreter Tatiana (Natalie Wood). Tatiana is a widow (her cosmonaut husband had been killed a few years earlier) and Dr Bradley is separated from his wife. No viewer is going to be surprised when they take a bit of a shine to one another.

Dr Bradley and his team, along with Dr Dubov, head for the top-secret launch command centre of Project Hercules, cunningly concealed beneath New York. With the (hypothetical)  Russian satellite they now have thirty nukes, enough to deal with menacing asteroids. In theory. The trouble is that no-one has ever tried blowing up an asteroid before so no-one has any idea if the plan will actually work. meanwhile smaller fragments of Orpheus are already hitting the Earth, causing widespread devastation. If the missile plan doesn’t work it’s goodbye to civilisation.

As far as disaster movie plots go this one is no sillier than average and Meteor had the potential to be a disaster movie classic. This is however an American International Pictures  production, with the sort of parsimonious budget you expect from AIP. Had the movie been released a decade or two earlier nobody would have worried about the iffy special effects. They would have been regarded as par for the course for sci-fi movies and people would simply have enjoyed the movie as an exciting B-picture aimed at the drive-in market. By 1979 however audiences expected every sci-fi movie to look as good as Star Wars. And judged by the standards of Star Wars the special effects in Meteor just don’t cut it. They don’t cut it at all. In fact they’re basically 1950s standard. Of course for someone like me that’s no problem - it just adds to the fun. But it certainly was not going to help this picture at the box office.

The Project Hercules headquarters in a disused subway station beneath the Hudson River is quite a cool idea and looks good.

Meteor does benefit from an impressive cast. The characterisation is practically non-existent so what the producers needed were actors with charisma and energy who were not afraid to go over-the-top. Sean Connery, with charisma to burn, was an ideal choice as the hero. Karl Malden is very good as the NASA chief. Henry Fonda makes a brief appearance as the US President and he manages to look grave and presidential which is all that was required of him. Martin Landau goes gleefully berserk as a disgruntled general.  For some reason it was decided to make the Russian scientist, Dr Dubov, unable to speak English. This means that Brian Keith has to deliver all his dialogue in Russian. Dramatically this does work pretty well. In fact he pretty much steals the picture with a deliciously excessive performance - he even gets to sing! In Russian! Since she’s playing a Russian interpreter Natalie Wood gets to practice her Russian as well. And since she’s an astrophysicist as well as an interpreter her character actually serves some purpose.

Ronald Neame had directed The Poseidon Adventure a few years earlier so he must have seemed like an obvious choice to direct Meteor. In fact Meteor does have a few very Poseidon Adventure-like moments in its later stages. Given the pitifully inadequate special effects budget Neame does his best and he keeps things reasonably exciting.

This very much a movie from the age of detente, when (relatively) peaceful co-existence and even limited co-operation between the two super powers seemed to be entirely possible. There are no bad guys in this movie. Both the Americans and the Russians were equally at fault in building satellites with missiles aimed at each other, and both are equally willing to work together to save the world. Dr Dubov is not only the most interesting and entertaining character in the film he’s also a thoroughly charming fellow.

Sir Run Run Shaw was also involved in the production of this movie, which undoubtedly explains the scenes of Hong Kong menaced by a tidal wave.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray looks splendid although it’s disappointingly lacking in any extras at all.

No sane person would attempt to argue that Meteor is a great movie, or even a good movie. It is however quite entertaining if you’re prepared to accept ridiculously cheap special effects as a feature rather than a bug in a science fiction disaster movie.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Innocent Bystanders (1972)

By 1972 when Innocent Bystanders was released the spy movie craze had pretty well peaked. There would still be spy movies of course and some would do very well but the days when a modestly budget spy thriller was a guaranteed money-spinner were over. So it’s not altogether surprising that Innocent Bystanders has disappeared into almost total obscurity. Which is a pity because it’s not a bad movie at all.

Stanley Baker plays John Craig, a British agent who works for the ultra-secret Department K (which handles assignments that are too grubby for any other intelligence agency to touch).

The problem is that Craig is washed up. He’s middle-aged, weary and disillusioned, his previous assignment ended badly and there is considerable doubt as to whether he has fully recovered from a particularly brutal session of torture courtesy of the KGB. The head of Department K, Loomis (Donald Pleasence), gives Craig one last chance to prove he still has what it takes.

The basic premise is set up for us with a well-staged and very violent prison break from a Soviet Gulag. One of the escapees was an agronomist named Aaron Kaplan (Vladek Sheybal). Now the CIA has decided it wants Kaplan. The problem for the head of the CIA’s Group 3, Blake (Dana Andrews), is that there’s a leak in his section. So he wants the British to get Kaplan for him. Loomis is happy to do this, for a price. It’s a price the Americans are not prepared to pay but Loomis decides it might be advantageous to get Kaplan anyway. This will be Craig’s chance to redeem himself.


Craig will have the assistance of two other Department K agents, Royce (Derren Nesbitt) and Benson (Sue Lloyd). He doesn’t want their help, and with good reason. They’re young hotshot agents. Craig had been Department K’s top agent and they would both like to supplant him.

The mission takes Craig to New York, and then to Turkey. The KGB are also after Kaplan but Craig finds the Americans to be a bigger problem. To get to Kaplan he has to get to Kaplan’s brother in New York and to make things easier (as he imagines) he kidnaps the brother’s ward Miriam Loman (Geraldine Chaplin). Miriam doesn’t seem too bothered about being kidnapped. In fact she seems to be quite pleased to be kidnapped by a big strong macho British spy.

Of course this being a spy thriller there are going to be double-crosses. Lots of them.


This movie is a far cry from the Bond movies. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s quite a bit of violence and this being the early 70s the violence is often quite graphic. There are no gadgets, no spectacular stunts, no large-scale action set-pieces. The budget wouldn’t have stretched that far but this is in any case not that kind of spy thriller. This movie is very much in the gritty realist mode. That’s not surprising given that it was scripted by James Mitchell from one of his own novels and Mitchell was the creator of the archetypal British cynical gritty realist TV spy drama Callan. Innocent Bystanders has more in common with Callan (and with the 1974 Callan movie) than with Bond, with the ageing violent disillusioned hero (almost an anti-hero), the vicious young hotshot agent who wants his job, the duplicitous and callous spymaster and the general tone of pessimism and betrayal.

Stanley Baker makes a fine tough, ruthless but psychologically damaged hero. Geraldine Chaplin was an odd choice for a leading lady in a spy thriller but her slightly offbeat performance works quite well - she’s no Bond girl but this is not a Bond movie.


A major bonus is the superb supporting cast. Donald Pleasence is chillingly reptilian. Dana Andrews can’t quite match him for cold calculating creepiness but he gives it his best shot and he’s very effective. The very underrated Derren Nesbitt (best known as the star of the superb British cop/espionage TV drama series Special Branch) is delightfully vicious. Sue Lloyd does well as the female spy Benson. What you don’t quite expect in a film written by James Mitchell is comic relief but that’s exactly what Warren Mitchell provides in a deliciously outrageous turn as Omar, a Turk with an Australian accent who becomes an unlikely ally for Craig.

Director Peter Collinson had a brief but interesting career before his untimely death at the age of 44. His best-known feature was The Italian Job and he brings a similar kind of quirkiness to Innocent Bystanders.


The Olive Films DVD is what we’ve come to expect from this company - slightly overpriced, totally bereft of extras but a satisfactory transfer of an obscure and hitherto impossible-to-find movie.

Innocent Bystanders never really had a chance in 1972. It just didn’t have the budget to compete with blockbuster spy movies such as the Bond movies. Spy fans prepared to accept it on its own terms will however find much to enjoy here. Recommended.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Gorilla at Large (1954)

The title of Gorilla at Large suggests a fun campfest. In fact this is a murder mystery, and not a bad one. But don’t worry - there’s plenty of silly fun as well.

This movie belongs to the small but interesting genre of circus/carnival murder mysteries, along with the excellent Ring of Fear (also made in 1954 oddly enough - this was a big year for the genre).

Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is that it boasts an all-star cast. And I’m not being sarcastic. Raymond Burr, Lee J. Cobb, Anne Bancroft, Cameron Mitchell and Lee Marvin - all big (or at least moderately big) names, and they can all act.

The setting is a carnival run by Cy Miller (Raymond Burr). Anne Bancroft plays his wife Laverne who does a trapeze act involving a gorilla (yes, really). Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell) and his girlfriend Audrey Baxter (Charlotte Austin) are working in the carnival while Joey takes a break from law school.

The carnival’s major crowd-puller is Goliath the gorilla. How do you make a gorilla into a really big attraction? That’s simple. You have a pretty girl doing a trapeze act above his cage, and you have her seem to be on the verge of falling into the clutches of the lust-crazed ape. The fact that this particular gorilla happens to strongly dislike Laverne adds a touch of real danger.


Things start to go wrong when Miller fires Morse (John Kellogg), a sleazy sideshow operator. Morse is then found dead in the gorilla’s cage. But one thing is immediately apparent to Detective-Sergeant Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) - whoever killed Morse it wasn’t Goliath the gorilla.

There had been an unfortunate (in fact fatal) accident at the carnival a few years previously). Garrison suspects a connection but whatever the connection might be it’s not immediately obvious. It’s also clear that quite a few members of this show have things that they’re hiding.


Joey’s situation becomes somewhat awkward when he’s asked to become part of Laverne’s act. Laverne is, to put things delicately, a friendly sort of girl. And she’s really friendly towards Joey. Joey isn’t really part of this world but he’s being drawn into it and it’s likely to get kind of perilous for him.

It gets perilous for everybody. Morse’s murder was the first but it isn’t the last. Leonard Praskins and Barney Slater wrote the screenplay and in between the outrageousness there’s a decent enough mystery plot in there.

Director Harmon Jones had an undistinguished movie career before moving into television in the mid-50s. He actually does a fairly good job here, making skillful use of the carnival setting and keeping the pacing pleasingly tight.



With such an impressive cast you’d expect the acting to be a cut above the usual B-movie standards, and it is. Burr projects a subtle sense of menace but doesn’t go over the top. Bancroft, just twenty-two at the time, is excellent in what is really a classic femme fatale role. Cameron Mitchell is solid. Lee J. Cobb is less mannered than usual and makes a plausible sympathetic-but-tough cop. Lee Marvin is great fun as a uniformed cop with delusions of grandeur. Peter Whitney is brooding and creepy as Goliath’s handler Kovacs. Warren Stevens is quite competent as Sergeant Garrison’s offsider.

This was actually the second time Raymond Burr had starred in a rampaging gorilla movie, the first being Bride of the Gorilla in 1951.


Fox released this one in a two-disc two-movie Midnite Movies pack, paired with Mystery of Monster Island (which I haven’t watched yet). Gorilla at Large gets a very nice anamorphic transfer. The movie was shot in Technicolor, making this one of the ambitious 1950s gorilla movies.

Gorilla at Large has its share of high camp moments but it’s also an unexpectedly well-made and well-acted production. I’m not claiming it’s a forgotten cinematic classic but it’s a decent little movie. And it’s hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Magnificent Gladiator (1964)

Magnificent Gladiator was a late entry in the Italian peplum cycle. It’s not by any means a great example of the genre but it is a good deal of silly fun.

It was written and directed by Alfonso Brescia and if you’re familiar with Brescia’s work this may well cause you to gnash your teeth in despair. Brescia is one of the legendary bad film-makers but while he was certainly bad he was never boring. 

This film belongs to the non-fantasy historical peplum sub-genre - they are no monsters or supernatural events. However one should not jump to the conclusion that anything in this movie has much to do with actual history.

It starts with the Romans fighting the Dacians. Attalus, the son of the Dacian king, surrenders in order to save his people. In the English dubbed version Attalus becomes Hercules because in English-dubbed peplums the hero is always called Hercules. 

Attalus/Hercules (Mark Forest) soon wins the favour of the Roman Emperor Gallienus (Franco Cobianchi) by demonstrating his prowess in the arena. Gallienus is a rather jovial sort of emperor but he is by no means a fool. He takes a genuine liking to Hercules and the feeling is reciprocated. Hercules’ people have been enslaved but that is no great problem. Gallienus assures our hero that they will soon be granted Roman citizenship and in fact he has every intention of honouring his promise. So everything seems pretty hunky dory - the Dacians can look forward to a future of security and prosperity as part of the Roman Empire, and Hercules has every prospect of marrying the emperor’s daughter Velida (Marilù Tolo).



There is however one major problem. That problem is Zullo (Paolo Gozlino). Zullo is wealthy, powerful, treacherous and ambitious. He intends to marry Velida himself and to seize the imperial throne. A good peplum has to have a beautiful evil princess and in this movie that function is performed by Clea (Jolanda Modio). She’s not actually a princess but she is a noblewoman highly placed at the imperial court and she is evil and she is beautiful. She’s also Zullo’s girlfriend but she’s happy to go along with his plans to marry Velida, confident that her rival can be disposed of later.

Zullo has a lucky break when he finds an out-of-work actor convicted of thieving, an actor who just happens to be the spitting image of the emperor. By substituting the actor for the emperor he can ensure the succession for himself after which he can get rid of both the emperor and the actor.



It goes without saying that Hercules gets wind of this nefarious plot and sets out to save Velida, and the emperor, and the Roman Empire, and his Dacians.

This movie is a bit unusual in that neither the Romans nor the Dacians are the bad guys. The trouble is caused entirely by the evil machinations of Zullo and Clea. 

In an Alfonso Brescia movie you expect some serious weirdness. In this case the weirdness is provided by the crazy hyperactive shepherd Drusius (Oreste Lionello). Drusius also provides the obligatory comic relief. He is loyal to Hercules but most of all he is loyal to his sheep, especially his favourite sheep Messalina.



Unusually for a Brescia movie (generally synonymous with extreme cheapness) Magnificent Gladiator does have a certain amount of at least moderately impressive spectacle including a reasonably large-scale battle scene early on. The sets also are not too bad - possibly they may have been left over from a more expensive production? This is still clearly a very low-budget movie but for a Brescia movie it doesn’t look as shoddy as usual.

Mark Forest is obviously not taking the proceedings too seriously. This is a silly fun movie and his performance reflects this. At least he isn’t embarrassingly wooden. Franco Cobianchi is rather good playing the dual roles of the surprisingly sympathetic Roman emperor and the second-rate actor who is not quite as malleable a dupe as Zullo had hoped for. Jolanda Modio does just fine in the femme fatale role as Clea. Nazzareno Zamperla is fine as Herc’s faithful sidekick Horatius. The problem is Oreste Lionello as Drusius - he’s insanely over-the-top but not particularly funny and soon becomes irritating. This may have been exacerbated by the dubbing so perhaps I’m being unfair to Lionello - maybe he was genuinely funny in Italian. His devotion to his beloved sheep does however provide the off-the-wall quality so essential in an Alfonso Brescia opus.



Retromedia have done a reasonable job with their DVD release. There’s some print damage and on occasions the colour fluctuates just a little but on the whole it’s an OK print and it is in the correct aspect ratio and the transfer is anamorphic - both major pluses for fans of the peplum genre accustomed to seeing horrible butchered pan-and-scanned prints of these types of movies.

If you’re looking for much more extreme examples of Brescia’s enjoyable cinematic  looniness check out Cosmos: War of the Planets (1977) and Amazons vs Supermen (1975).

Magnificent Gladiator is consistently silly but it’s still hugely entertaining fun. Recommended.


Monday, 1 June 2015

Supernatural (1933)

Supernatural’s main claim to fame is that it was Carole Lombard’s only horror movie. It’s an oddity, but a fairly enjoyable one.

It concerns the machinations of a phony spiritualist. Now I know what you’re thinking. This will be another 1930s old dark house movie that plays around with supernatural themes but ends up explaining everything away, or even worse giving us a hokey sentimental message about the afterlife. In this case you’d be wrong. Supernatural is an actual horror movie, with actual supernatural themes, and with a few at least vaguely scary/creepy moments.

Notorious serial killer Ruth Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) is about to face the electric chair. Psychiatrists have examined her and come to the conclusion that she’s not crazy, just very very evil. Dr Carl Houston (H. B. Warner) has a particular interest in the case. He has a unique theory about psycho killers. Everyone knows that a spectacular psycho killer inspires imitators, so-called copycat killers, but Dr Houston suspects there’s more to it. What if the copycat killers are actually controlled by the spirit of an executed killer? He wants to get hold of her body after the execution to do some experiments.

Meanwhile heiress Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard) is still devastated after the sudden death of her twin brother John. Dr Houston happens to be a friend of the Courtney family, a circumstance which will have consequences.


Phony spiritualist Paul Bavian (Allan Dinehart) has heard about the death of John Courtney and he sees his chance. Roma Courtney is so distraught it should be easy to gain her trust with a few fake séances and then start bleeding her dry financially. Bavian is an old hand at this sort of thing. Bavian also happens to have one of Ruth Rogen’s many lovers.

Bavian’s plan progresses well despite the hostility of Grant Wilson (Randolph Scott). Grant is a good-natured young fellow who hopes to marry Roma and he’s decidedly sceptical about the supernatural. The second séance has very unexpected results - results that Bavian most certainly could not have anticipated.


These two plot strands, the phony spiritualist and the executed serial killer, do come together and so quite successfully.

It’s quite a challenging role for Lombard, especially after the second séance, and she carries it off pretty well. She has to be scary but in a subtle way and it works. Vivienne Osborne steals the picture with her truly outrageous performance as the terrifyingly evil Ruth Rogen. The other cast members are quite solid, with Allan Dinehart smooth and sleazy as the unscrupulous fake medium and Beryl Mercer having fun as Bavian’s loopy and unprincipled blackmailing landlady.

Director Victor Halperin made a few notable horror movies including Bela Lugosi’s most chilling movie, White Zombie. He knew how to do horror without being excessively obvious about it.


The special effects are simple but effective. Halperin repeats the extreme close-up on the scary eyes thing he did in White Zombie, and it works almost as effectively here. The movie gets bonus points for Dr Houston’s mad scientist laboratory - not in a crumbling gothic ruin but in an ultra-modern apartment building and looking more art deco than gothic.

The good ideas in this movie were to get heavily recycled over the next couple of decades which tends to make Supernatural seem less original than it actually was. 

The very short running time helps - the plot certainly moves along briskly. 


The Universal Vault Series DVD-R provides an acceptable barebones transfer, albeit at a somewhat excessive price.

Supernatural is no masterpiece but it is entertaining and a little bit unusual. Although it has quite a bit in common with the then-popular old dark house movies Supernatural is more fun and it’s a real horror movie. It’s a chance to see Lombard in a different kind of rôle. Highly recommended.