Friday, 18 May 2018
There are some crucial differences between Tarzan as played by Johnny Weissmuller and the Tarzan of the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (starting with Tarzan of the Apes in 1914). The Burroughs version of Tarzan is not an illiterate child of the jungle. Although raised by apes he has acquired an education from books. He belongs to both civilised society and to ape society. Someone at MGM decided that their Tarzan would be more popular if they quietly dropped the civilised side of the character. Given the enormous success enjoyed by the films it may well be that it was the right decision although it is a pity that so much of the complexity of the character is lost.
The movie begins with James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) hoping to get out of Africa, but they intend to leave the continent as rich men. Their plan is to find the legendary elephants’ graveyard where a fortune in ivory awaits them. The problem is that no-one knows the location of this graveyard and there’s no point in asking the natives since all the tribes are united on one point - anyone who knows the location must die. Parker and Holt however have quite accidentally stumbled upon a very promising lead.
They set off into the jungle with one unexpected additional member in their party. Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) has just arrived in Africa and insists on joining the expedition.
It takes a very long time for Tarzan to make his appearance in Tarzan the Ape Man. This means of course that the audience is eagerly looking forward to his entrance and when he does arrive he does so in some style.
By the time Tarzan appears the expedition has already encountered some formidable obstacles and dangers. The crossing of the river on rafts, the river being infested with hundreds of angry hippos and a few hungry crocodiles as well, is a superb action-adventure set-piece.
Tarzan and Jane meet under somewhat informal circumstances - he kidnaps her and carries her off to his treetop lair. Jane spends the rest of the movie hurtling back and forth between her old life with her father and her new life with Tarzan.
In this movie Tarzan encounters European civilisation for the first time and the encounter does not go at all smoothly. In fact it’s close to open war. Harry Holt’s hotheadedness is a major contributing factor. Harry likes to shoot things and he tends to do so without giving it a second thought. This does not endear him to Tarzan, especially on those occasions when Tarzan is the target.
Tarzan’s encounter with Jane proceeds much more satisfactorily. Tarzan can’t talk but that’s OK because Jane does enough talking for both of them. In fact she does as much talking as a dozen normal people. This girl just never stops talking, although she and Tarzan also seem to manage pretty well with certain non-verbal forms of communication.
There’s plenty of action with an endless supply of marauding lions and leopards and Tarzan getting chased (and very nearly caught) by crocodiles plus of course there are the much-feared murderous dwarves. Not pygmies, we are distinctly told that these are dwarves not pygmies. And they have some nasty plans for Jane’s father and for Harry Holt.
The director was W.S. Van Dyke, more renowned for his efficiency than his brilliance but he handles the action pretty well. There is of course a great deal of stock footage, and some process shots that are amusing in their outrageous obviousness.
This movie is available on DVD but I caught it on cable TV so I can’t tell you anything about the quality of the DVDs. The TV print I saw was in reasonably good condition.
This film is of course very very politically incorrect. It’s also plenty of fun (strange how politically incorrect movies do tend to be fun). There’s adventure and there’s romance. Tarzan and His Mate followed two years later and is even better (and it ups the eroticism very significantly).
Tarzan the Ape Man is important historically in that it established the formula for most of the countless Tarzan movies that would follow and it’[s worth seeing it for its own sake. Recommended.
Friday, 4 May 2018
It starts out promisingly, with a harmless priest feeding the pigeons in a Roman piazza but as we will soon discover he is no priest. He is a very high-priced assassin.
His target is the King of Kafiristan, Kafiristan being somewhere in central Asia. The Americans want Kafiristan’s oil and to get it they need to keep the king alive and that’s the job assigned to CIA agent Mark Stone.
The assassin is Oscar Snell, ex-Gestapo agent and reputedly the best hitman in Europe. Snell’s weakness is that he loves candy. That’s not really a weakness, but he does a habit of leaving candy wrappers lying about thus providing a useful clue for anyone trying to track him down.
Kerwin Mathews plays Stone as a typical square-jawed American eurospy hero, albeit one who takes his espionage duties fairly seriously. It’s not exactly a riveting performance but he handles the action scenes pretty well. He naturally has a sidekick, Costa (Venantino Venantini), who naturally provides comic relief.
While Stone is a rather dour hero Oscar Snell is a much more interesting villain. We feel right from the start that he’s dangerous even though he keeps himself very much under control. He’s a lone wolf villain and he likes being an assassin. At times one can’t help feeling sorry for him - his plans for killing the king are sound enough but they just keep misfiring.
This movie lacks the outrageous plot elements that are usually associated with the eurospy genre, and it’s also notably lacking in gadgetry. In fact plotwise it’s a very straightforward suspense thriller, with the assassin hunting the king and Mark Stone hunting the assassin.
It might sound a bit dull but it isn’t. There’s a lot of action and the action scenes are stylish and exciting. Rather than one-on-one fistfights we get extended all-in brawls in interesting settings - the fight among the statuary in the Orsini Gardens, the fight in the meat-packing plant and the fight among the barrels in the warehouse are all exceptionally well executed. And the fights are, by the standards of 1968, pretty full-blooded.
Stylistically this movie perhaps has more in common with the hard-edged eurocrime thrillers of the late 60s and early 70s than with the classic mid-60s eurospy genre, or at least that’s the direction in which it’s heading. Even with its moments of comic relief this is a fairly serious movie and it’s a eurospy movie with virtually no traces of camp. The action is what matters and that’s what the movie concentrates on.
There are some bikini-clad girls of course, although not quite as many as are usually found in this genre. And Costa certainly pursues the ladies with enthusiasm, and with a certain amount of success. Mark Stone is not so much into womanising although there is a glamorous lady doctor on hand to provide a love interest.
The Killer Likes Candy was released by Code Red as part of a spy movie DVD double-feature. It’s paired with a reasonably entertaining heist movie from the Philippines called Stoney (AKA Surabaya Conspiracy).
If you’re a fan of eurospy movies then you know that you have to be grateful for what you get. There aren’t many such films available on DVD and those that are available are very rarely in their correct aspect ratios and image quality is usually dubious. Sadly that’s the case with The Killer Likes Candy. It’s an awful pan-and-scanned print, but the chances of this movie ever getting a decent DVD release are pretty much zero. If you want to see the movie then this is probably as good as it’s ever going to get.
The Killer Likes Candy doesn’t deliver the over-the-top fun you generally hope for in a eurospy feature but it does deliver some decent suspense and some fine action sequences. The DVD transfer is definitely problematic but the movie is still worth seeing and is still recommended.
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
The dubbed version which hit the U.S. in 1964 pushes the comic elements even further, in fact it arguably pushes them a little too far.
This movie is also a bit unusual in that its star (or at least one of its two stars) went on to have a real career. That star was Australian Rod Taylor and in the same year that he made Colossus and the Amazon Queen he also made the movie that made him a legitimate movie star, that movie being The Time Machine.
Pirro (Rod Taylor) and Glauco (Ed Fury) are the two heroes. Pirro has the brains while Glauco has the muscles. At least Pirro thinks he’s the one with the brains. They’re broke and Pirro grabs what seems to him to be a great opportunity to earn some easy money. All they have to do is undertake a sea voyage and act as watchmen. The difficult part is tricking Glauco into going along with the idea but Pirro has plenty of experience in such matters.
Everything seems to be going well. They land on a remote island where lots of gold is waiting for them and the rest of the crew. There’s also a feast laid out with plenty of fine wine. Unfortunately the wine is drugged. They’ve been tricked but it’s worse than that - they have been sold to the Amazons. And the Amazons have only one use for men.
This is a Battle of the Sexes movie but with the roles reversed. The men are the warriors and are in control. The men are effeminate slaves who spend their time gossiping and are treated like pets. That is the fate awaiting Pirro, Glauco and their pals.
A worse fate may be in store for Glauco. He has offended the captain of the guard and she wants him put to death.
The Queen of the Amazons is anxious to give up her throne. All the other amazons are allowed to have men but the queen must remain chaste and she’s getting rather tired of chastity. There are two deadly rivals competing for the succession.
And of course there are plenty of romantic complications in store as well. The amazon women are all somewhat man-crazy. There are also some pirates who are mostly there so as to provide the obligatory climactic battle scene.
It’s very hard to judge comedy when it’s been dubbed. The original script might well have been quite witty. The dubbed version goes for broad comedy. Mostly it doesn’t succeed in being especially funny but it does manage to be seriously weird. This movie takes high camp as far as it can be taken and then some. There are some awesomely camp dance sequences. There’s also a cheerful disregard for period. The story is supposed to take place not long after the Trojan War but then we get some medieval jousting, not to mention the jazz-inspired dancing (and even without the jazzy score added for the dubbed version the dance routines are clearly jazz-inspired).
The costumes are absurd but they are amusingly bizarre.
The cast clearly understood that subtlety was not required in their performances.
One of the great things about movies of the past is that the film-makers did not agonise over whether their films might offend somebody. This is a rather good-natured movie on the whole but it sure isn’t politically correct.
Colossus and the Amazon Queen is available on DVD from Retromedia in a two-movie pack paired with Goliath and the Sins of Babylon. Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is an excellent film and it gets a pretty decent anamorphic transfer. Sadly the transfer for Colossus and the Amazon Queen is pan-and-scanned and definitely not so good.
It’s generally rather unfair to deliver a harsh judgment on a movie when you’re seeing it in a poorly dubbed version plus the print is not in great condition and to top it all off it’s pan-and-scanned but I think it’s still reasonable to say that this is a pretty bad movie. Despite this it has a certain goofy charm. It’s a bit like a beach party movie in that you have to be in the right mood but I found it to be oddly enjoyable. Recommended, if you have a high tolerance for camp.
Sunday, 15 April 2018
The U.S. Navy has a research establishment on the Salton Sea. They do all sorts of things there, including the testing of parachutes. Navy personnel make parachute jumps into the Salton Sea and are then recovered by boat. It’s all routine stuff, until three men are killed. Why they died is a mystery but it’s what happened to their bodies that is worrying.
Lieutenant Commander John Twillinger (Tim Holt) is not happy about it. He’s a guy who does things by the book and doesn’t take chances so he advises the local sheriff to close the beaches (to the disgust of the locals since it’s the height of the tourist season). And he sends some samples to Dr Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) at the laboratory at the base.
The results are puzzling. Even more puzzling to Dr Rogers is the radioactivity. He’s pretty sure the Navy hasn’t been doing anything that would explain the radioactivity, but there it is.
And then more people start dying.
It’s a nice slow buildup. We know something terrible is happening but at this stage we have no idea what it might be. As always what you don’t know and what you don’t see are more frightening than the things you do know and see. This is something that makers of horror movies keep learning, and then forgetting.
Of course eventually comes the dreaded moment when the monster has to be shown. Since the monster in question is a giant carnivorous mollusc one expects the worst but it’s actually not too bad. And the special effects in general are very good. There is real creepiness here. It was a standard feature of monster movies of the era to have the Scientist giving an expository lecture and showing a little film to explain things to the other characters. In this movie Dr Rogers has a little film about the very unpleasant habits of molluscs and I have to say that it enhances the creepiness fact quite a bit. It makes you really not want to encounter a gigantic mollusc.
Even after the monster is revealed this movie still relies on building suspense and genuine terror rather than just the slightly silly mayhem you so often get in this genre. Director Arnold Laven understands pacing as well and on the whole this is a pretty well-made film. The ending is very expertly handled. It’s also a bit more grisly than most 50s monster flicks. And even the hero shows real fear at times, a hero of course not being someone who is without fear but someone who can be afraid and still do his job.
There are some intriguing foreshadowings of a much more famous later movie, a movie about a deadly shark made by some guy called Spielberg.
And there’s some decent underwater photography. This was obviously a B-picture, but just as obviously it was made on a slightly more generous budget than usual.
The acting is well above the standard you expect in a monster movie. Tim Holt is very good as Lt. Cmdr. Twillinger, a character with a bit of complexity (by monster movie standards). He’s a man who pushes others, and himself, very hard. He’s a bit of a martinet and not overly popular with the men under his command. This seems to be just the way he approaches his job since he can be quite affable with civilians. He’s not an obviously sympathetic hero type but right from the start we respect his professionalism.
Hans Conried is not an actor you expect to find playing things straight but that’s how he plays Dr Rogers and it works pretty well. The supporting players are all competent.
The Salton Sea, a huge saltwater lake in the middle of the desert in southern California, is a good choice as a setting for this type of movie. In the movie at least it has a rather brooding feel to it (particularly at the beginning). The All American Canal System also features prominently and is used just as effectively.
While other giant critter sci-fi horror movies gained cult followings The Monster That Challenged the World ended up being pretty much forgotten. This is both surprising and unfair because this happens to be a well above-average example of the breed.
I caught this film on TV and happily it was a very good letterboxed print. It’s been released on DVD and more recently on Blu-Ray as well.
The Monster That Challenged the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Unfortunately it just isn’t true. The Spanish version certainly has its virtues. Melford and his cinematographer George Robinson equal and in many cases surpass the visual brilliance of the Browning-Karl Freund version.
On the whole the acting is slightly better. Lupita Tovar is a more lively and more sexy heroine than Helen Chandler, Barry Norton is much less annoying than David Manners and Eduardo Arozamena is a less stilted Van Helsing. The atmosphere is less stuffy.
There are however some very big problems with the Spanish language version. The first is that Pablo Álvarez Rubio is just a bit too over-the-top as Renfield while failing to achieve the levels of creepiness that Dwight Frye reaches.
A much bigger problem is the absence of Lugosi. Carlos Villarías is, quite simply, an awful Dracula. He grimaces continually but rather than being scary it simply makes the Count seem ridiculous. More seriously he lacks Lugosi’s presence. Lugosi could make Dracula ingratiatingly charming and genuinely sinister. Villarías just seems hyperactive and silly. The more menacing he tries to be the sillier he seems.
Yet another problem is that this version is half an hour longer than the English-language version. Melford was obviously determined to shoot every scene that was in the shooting script. The trouble is that almost all of the extra scenes he shot were unnecessary, and they’re mostly very dialogue-heavy and they make Tod Browning’s leisurely paced film seem brisk and economical.
Melford’s film, despite its visual splendours, also cannot avoid the stagebound feel that was a basic flaw in the script. The initial mistake made by Universal was to adapt the (admittedly very commercially successful) stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel. Both versions of the film are for much of their running times too much like filmed plays. Of course it has to be said that Stoker’s novel has its problems too.
Being able to utilise the same sets as Browning’s movie was obviously a huge advantage. For very little money (a budget of just over $60,000) Universal got a movie that looks like an A-picture.
The Spanish version is certainly interesting. It’s fascinating to see the slightly different ways that essentially the same scenes were shot and to see the ways in which Melford and Robinson were often able to improve on the original (they had the further advantage of being to see the dailies of Browning’s film and so of course could see what worked and what didn’t).
The Spanish-language Drácula is included as an extra on both Blu-Ray and DVD releases of Dracula. Apart from one reel it looks terrific. English subtitles are of course provided.
It is definitely worth seeing even if it’s even more flawed than Tod Browning’s version.
Of course the biggest single problem with this movie is that it was so influential and has been imitated, quoted, homaged and parodied so many times. Everything about the movie became a horror movie cliché. What you have to keep always in mind is that in 1931 these were not clichés. At the time of its release this film was new, fresh and exciting. While Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu was the first vampire movie for the vast majority of viewers in 1931 the Universal Dracula would have been their first exposure to the vampire film. In its day it had genuine shock value. It was not just the horror content but also the sexual implications. Dracula’s victims are almost all female and there is a very strong element of seduction in his hunting of his victims.
While Bram Stoker’s novel was well known and the stage adaptation had been very successful it’s also fair to say that most of the plot elements that are now so very familiar would have been new to most of the movie’s initial audience.
Dracula also marked the first appearance of the Universal gothic aesthetic. While that aesthetic would itself become something of a cliché there’s no question that in 1931 this movie must have been an extraordinary visual experience.
This naturally also applies to Bela Lugosi’s performance.
This at least is what I tried to do this time and it did help, to some extent at least.
The first twenty minutes is in my view as good as anything you’ll see in any gothic horror movie. We’re told what we need to know in very economical fashion but mostly the focus is on building the atmosphere. Which is accomplished with outstanding success. There are just so many superb visual moments in this early part of the film. The first scene in the crypt below Dracula’s castle, the first glimpse of an undead hand opening a coffin lid, the celebrated scene on the staircase when Renfield first encounters the Count, the wonderfully eerie scenes with the three brides of Dracula - all absolutely superb.
There is a school of thought that the strengths of this movie are due to brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund while its weaknesses are the responsibility of director Tod Browning. That might be going too far but certainly the visuals are consistently superior to the story-telling. In fact there are accounts of the making of the movie that suggest that Browning had little interest in proceedings. That would certainly explain the fact that the movie loses direction halfway through and never quite gets back on track.
The early part of Dracula is very cinematic. Once the Count arrives in England though it becomes more and more simply a filmed stage production, and the performances (including Lugosi’s) become more stagey and much less effective. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing gives a performance that is both overly melodramatic and rather dull. Dwight Frye is certainly memorable as Renfield although again it’s essentially a silent movie performance.
Universal’s Blu-Ray release looks very good although the menus are unbelievably aggravating. There are plenty of extras - a couple of documentaries and an audio commentary by David Skal. The most exciting extra though is the Spanish-language Drácula, shot at the same time as the English version. It’s interesting enough to be worth its own post which will follow shortly.
Saturday, 24 March 2018
Jorge (Ramón Gay) and his wife Béatriz (Rosa Elena Durgel) live on a sugar plantation in Cuba. They’re slave owners but Jorge is an enlightened master and life is generally peaceful. Or at least it was peaceful, until Yambaó came back. Yambaó (Ninón Sevilla) is the grand-daughter of the witch Caridad. Caridad had been killed (or was presumed to have been killed) by Jorge’s overseer Damián a few years earlier. Yambaó disappeared at that time but now she has returned and things are going to get very complicated.
Yambaó has always been in love with Jorge and although she realises there isn’t much hope for such a love it hasn’t stopped her and hasn’t diminished her passions in any way. Jorge also certainly has more than a passing interest in Yambaó. Damián’s son Lázaro is also in love with Yambaó. Lázaro, like his father Damián, is a slave so he’s a much more realistic target for her affections. But she still loves Jorge.
It’s worth pointing out that Yambaó is not a slave. She was born a slave but the old master, Jorge’s father, freed her. Which adds to the difficulties, since Jorge therefore has no control over her.
To make Jorge’s life even more complicated plague breaks out. And the plague makes no distinction between master and slave.
The superstitions that had always been simmering away beneath the surface of life on the plantation now blossom in potentially very threatening ways.
Meanwhile Yambaó plots. Perhaps she does not have her grandmother’s powers but she certainly has powers of her own, both supernatural and feminine. Whether the spells she casts on men are mainly witchcraft or mainly the result of her earthy eroticism is hard to say but either way their efficacy cannot be denied.
Jorge and Béatriz are awaiting the birth of their first child and that can only add fuel to the fires of Yambaó’s jealousy.
This movie is perhaps more melodrama than anything else (which is no problem for me since I happen to enjoy a good overheated melodrama) but there’s enough of the witchcraft angle to keep horror fans reasonably satisfied.
The musical angle should be put into perspective. This is not at all a Hollywood musical. The musical interludes all serve a purpose. Most are connected with various rituals and do a great deal to build the atmosphere of malevolence and foreboding. And most of them feature Ninón Sevilla’s dancing, and her dancing is a sight to behold. As well as being a successful actress Cuban-born Ninón Sevilla was an extremely famous dancer, known for doing her own choreography and for the extreme eroticism of her performances. And there’s plenty of that eroticism here. It’s easy to see why she was a sensation as a professional dancer.
The music itself was obviously intended to capture an Afro-Caribbean-Cuban feel and it does so pretty successfully.
Ramón Gay gives a fine performance as the tortured Jorge but the film belongs to Ninón Sevilla. She might not have been a great actress in a conventional sense but she has an extraordinary smouldering presence.
There’s no gore but there are some creepy moments. Somewhat surprisingly (this is a 1957 movie after all) there’s some brief nudity.
There’s some surprising subtlety here. Jorge is hardly a paragon of virtue but he’s no villain. Yambaó is dangerous but is she evil? Or is she herself being used by an evil force?
Yambaó was shot in Cuba and visually it’s very impressive. In fact it’s a very well made movie. The script, by Julio Albo and Julio Alejandro, is also surprisingly intelligent and provocative. Director Alfredo B. Crevenna (responsible for many of the more interesting Mexican genre films) does a fine job.
This movie is paired with Mermaids of Tiburon in the Kit Parker Films/VCI Entertainment Psychotronica Volume 3 DVD release and is also included in their Psychotronica Collectors’ Set. The transfer is acceptable if not dazzling.
Yambaó is an oddity but it’s an interesting and very entertaining oddity.