Friday, 27 April 2012

Brides of Dracula (1960)

Brides of Dracula (1960)


The success of Hammer’s first forays into the gothic horror genre meant that sequels were inevitable. This presented a slight problem in the case of their Horror of Dracula sequel - no Christopher Lee. There are varying accounts of the reason Lee did not follow up his iconic performance in the first film but whatever the true reason Hammer found themselves having to find a new vampire.

Fortunately they still had director Terence Fisher and they still had Peter Cushing. And the results were surprisingly satisfactory.

Brides of Dracula (1960)


Towards the close of the 19th century a young French school teacher, Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), is stranded on her way to take up a position at Herr Lang’s academy for young ladies. A rather forbidding older woman, the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), offers to put her up at her castle. She lives alone and would be glad of the company. The villagers seem terrified of the baroness but Marianne, who is a rather innocent young woman, is happy to accept her offer.

She soon discovers that the baroness does not actually live alone. In another wing of the castle she sees a young man. A rather good-looking young man. He is the baroness’s son,  and he is chained up. She is told it is because he is mad. But he’s such a good-looking young man she refuses to believe this, and he persuades her to release him

Brides of Dracula (1960)


Of course the young Baron Meinster (David Peel) is not mad, he’s a vampire. He was a wild young man who got in with the wrong crowd, but in his case it was a very wrong crowd indeed and he ended up being turned into a vampire. Despite the title Dracula does not appear in the film, but there are the vampire brides. Marianne seems destined to join them but luckily Dr Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) happens to be passing through the village doing some research on vampirism.

Horror movies do not requite particularly coherent plots, and this one is less coherent than most. In fact it’s so incoherent this could almost be an Italian horror movie! The script obviously went through several rewrites and it appears that as a result certain sub-plots were just left hanging while the main plot is left full of gaping holes. Terence Fisher wisely ignores such trifles and concentrates on keeping the action moving, reasoning (correctly) that the movie has enough strengths to compensate for its plot weaknesses.

Brides of Dracula (1960)


David Peel makes a fairly good vampiric villain. Cushing is in fine form. The supporting cast is very strong. Yvonne Monlaur does little apart from looking innocent and pretty but Martita Hunt is excellent as the baroness who turns out to be more victim than villain although her judgment has certainly been questionable where her son is concerned. Freda Jackson goes right over the top as the young baron’s old nurse. Mona Washbourne is good as Herr Lang’s wife and Miles Malleson provides good comic relief as a doctor of dubious morals.

The sets are superb - among the best in any Hammer gothic horror film. The Meinster Castle is particularly impressive. Bernard Robinson was responsible for the production design and it’s one of his best efforts. Jack Asher’s wonderful Technicolor cinematography is another major asset.

Brides of Dracula (1960)


Without meaning any disrespect to Christopher Lee in some ways the movie benefits from his absence since it frees the scriptwriters from the shackles of the Dracula story and allows them to strike out in a slightly different direction.

Universal’s DVD release in the Hammer Horror Series boxed set is a glorious widescreen transfer.

Brides of Dracula (1960)


An excellent effort from Hammer, and highly recommended.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Ghost of Frankenstein was Universal’s fourth Frankenstein movie and not surprisingly it was the weakest up to that date. It’s still fun though.

Those villagers are at it again, this time they’ve decided to burn Castle Frankenstein to the ground. Unfortunately they not only fail to kill Ygor, they also inadvertently bring the monster back to life. Ygor and his friend the monster set off for a neighbouring town in search of the original Dr Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig. Dr Ludwig Frankenstein specialises in diseases of the mind, which is convenient.

Trouble starts immediately as the monster tries to retrieve a ball for a small girl, killing two townspeople in the process. The monster is arrested but of course they can’t hold him. Ygor and the monster take shelter in Ludwig Frankenstein’s house and Ygor blackmails him into helping the monster. Ludwig comes up with a fool-proof plan - to replace the creature’s diseased brain with a healthy one. Luckily he has one on hand, the brain of his young assistant, conveniently killed by the monster. Ygor has his own ideas however.

Bela Lugosi once again plays Ygor, and once again steals the picture. Cedric Hardwicke’s lifeless performance as Ludwig Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr’s similarly dull monster make this easy but Lugosi is in good form and was probably always going to steal the limelight anyway. The script makes him the dominant character, as he was in Son of Frankenstein, and Lugosi makes the most of this.

Lionel Atwill also does well as Ludwig Frankenstein’s rather sinister chief assistant Dr Bohmer who is a much more interesting and complex character than Ludwig Frankenstein himself. Bohmer had been Ludwig’s scientific mentor until an unfortunate mistake wrecked his career and his ambitions to restore his reputation are along with Ygor’s machinations provide the main engine that drives the plot.

As was usual with Universal’s monster movie the script went through several hands and some major changes before shooting began.

The absence of Boris Karloff is a major loss. It’s even more unfortunate that Basil Rathbone, who had been excellent as Ludwig’s brother Wolf Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein, was not on hand.

Son of Frankenstein in 1939 had been the last attempt by Universal to continue their tradition of high quality horror A-pictures. They would make occasional good horror films after this but they would be good B-movies rather than A-movies. Ghost of Frankenstein lacks the superbly imaginative set design of its immediate predecessor in the Frankenstein cycle. One thing you have to say for Universal though - even their B-pictures looked great. Production values here are surprisingly high and the cinematography (by Elwood Bredell and Milton R. Krasner) is excellent and as with all the Universal monster movies the movie looks suitably moody and gothic.

Erle C. Kenton was at best a skillful artisan but he at least keeps the pacing very tight. This movie marked a significant downturn in Universal’s Frankenstein cycle but Ghost of Frankenstein is by no means a bad film and it’s still exciting and entertaining.

Worth seeing for Lugosi, and an enjoyable enough movie on its own merits.

Universal’s DVD presentation is exquisite.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Man on the Spying Trapeze (1967)

Man on the Spying Trapeze (1967)Man on the Spying Trapeze (Anónima de asesinos) is a typical example of the eurospy genre, and a pretty good one.

Jerry Land (Wayde Preston) is an American intelligence agent on the trail of a stolen microfilm containing plans for a new rocket reactor motor. The case is linked to the mysterious death of another agent in Rome. The trail leads him to Beirut. The trail also leads him to a succession of glamorous women.

There are various double-crosses and there’s a pretty good diabolical criminal mastermind. Actually two diabolical criminal masterminds.

These eurospy movies could never match the Bond moves when it came to spectacular stunts and gadgets but this one has plenty of action. Such gadgets as there are are typical of the gadgets used in good low-budget spy movies, relying on clever ideas rather than high tech - such as the camera concealed in a pair of dentures!

Man on the Spying Trapeze (1967)In fact that’s the technique used throughout this film. The idea of nuclear-powered rockets sounds cool, even if the producers couldn’t afford to show us any actual rockets! That’s part of the fun of this genre - the high-tech content is mostly suggested. There’s also a high-tech torture device which is basically just a chair with a few bits bolted on.

Wayde Preston had starred in a western series called Colt .45 on the American ABC network but when his career in the US started to falter he followed the example of many other rugged action hero actors and set off for Europe where he found plenty of work in the Italian film industry. He makes an ideal eurospy hero. Eurospy heroes are almost always square-jawed Americans. He wasn’t the world’s greatest actor but he was more than adequate fir a role like this.

Man on the Spying Trapeze (1967)Noé Murayama as Mr Wong is a suitably sinister villain. Helga Sommerfeld adds glamour as one of the beautiful women liberally sprinkled through the plot.

The formula here is plenty of fist-fights and plenty of at least implied sex. The sex is like the gadgets - you don’t see anything but you know there’s a lot of it going on.

It hits the ground running with gunplay, a car chase and explosions. The climactic action sequences are well-mounted, with helicopters, lots of extras and a huge expenditure of small-arms ammunition.

Man on the Spying Trapeze (1967)This Spanish-Italian-West German co-production has never to my knowledge had an official DVD release, something that is sadly the case for so many tempting eurospy titles. Unfortunately only a handful have had decent DVD releases and most movies in this genre  only get to be seen in cruddy fullframe editions as was the case with this movie. This makes it difficult to render a fair judgment on the cinematography and even on the skills of the director (in this case Spaniard Juan de Orduña).

If you’re a fan of the genre Man on the Spying Trapeze is still worth tracking down. A good solid entry in the eurospy cycle.

is it worth continuing?

Now that Blogger has been given a "new look" I'm going to have to seriously consider if it's worth going on. At the moment my feeling is that it's just not worthwhile, that the new interface is completely unusable.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Vampire’s Coffin (1958)

The Vampire’s Coffin (El ataúd del Vampiro) was a sequel of sorts to the excellent 1957 Mexican gothic horror classic El Vampiro. It’s a much less serious offering although it’s not without merit.

The principal cast members and the production team are the same in both films. While El Vampiro is true gothic horror, moody and atmospheric, The Vampire’s Coffin is notably cheesier. While the main characters are supposed to be the same people, they aren’t quite.

Marta González (Ariadna Welter) is in hospital, under the care of Dr Enrique Saldívar (Abel Salazar), still recovering from her encounter with the vampire Count Lavud (who also goes by the alias Duval). Dr Saldívar’s colleague Dr Marion (Carlos Ancira) rather unwisely steals the coffin containing the mortal (or rather immortal) remains of the count.

The heavy he has employed to steal the coffin does something even more unwise - he removes the stake through the count’s heart in order to steal a jewelled medallion. So now there’s a vampire running loose in the hospital.

The plot is a little weak but intelligent use is made of the settings, especially the theatre and the wax museum. Marta is a showgirl which offers the opportunity to add a little glamour and to add a theatrical setting. The scene of the girl being stalked in an alleyway is expertly done, as is the wax museum finale.

If you’re only familiar with the fun but cheesy side of Mexican horror, typified by the Aztec Mummy and wrestling women movies, the more serious Mexican gothic horror movies such as The Black Pit of Dr M, The Curse of the Crying Woman, The Witch's Mirror and El Vampiro will come as quite a surprise. They’re excellent examples of the gothic genre, and they take the genre seriously. The Vampire’s Coffin is not one of the better efforts but it still looks great.

The great strength of the Mexican gothic horror movies is always the photography. They were masters of the art of making low-budget horror flicks look classy. They used all the gothic clichés - shadows, cobwebs, mist - but they used them so skillfully that they never look cheesy. While The Vampire’s Coffin suffers from an indifferent plot it never looks cheap or tacky. Even the bats manage not to look too silly. The special effects are very basic but again they’re done stylishly.

There aren’t many real scares but there’s still plenty of entertainment. Germán Robles makes a fine vampire. Ariadna Welter is very good as Marta.

Interestingly enough this Mexican mini-vampire cycle pre-dates Hammer’s first Dracula movie so the inspiration was clearly the Universal Dracula movies rather than Hammer’s. In fact the whole Mexican horror boom of the 50s was clearly indebted to Universal’s monster movies, but (unlike Hammer’s early forays into gothic horror) they weren’t remakes of Universal’s movies - they were all wholly original stories.

As always Casa Negra have come up with a superb DVD presentation. There are a few hisses at times on the soundtrack but the picture quality is superlative.

The double-DVD that includes this movie and El Vampiro is well worth getting hold of.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Maniac (1963)

Hammer tried to add some variety to their output in the early 60s with a series of black-and-white psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. Some were pretty good, in fact some were very good indeed, but the series quickly ran out of steam. Maniac (also released as The Maniac) from 1963 was one of the lesser offerings.

This one was directed by Michael Carreras, probably Hammer’s least highly thought of director, and it shares the faults of most of his films.

It starts extremely well. The opening sequences show a young woman being stalked and assaulted by a creepy guy, and then we see her father’s grisly revenge on the perpetrator. Or rather we don’t actually see it but we see him lighting the blowtorch and we get the picture. It’s skillfully done, conveying a visceral shock without resorting to clumsy and obvious gore.

After that the pacing slows right down, as it does in most of Carreras’s movies. This is so much a feature of his movies that one suspects it was deliberate, an attempt to build suspense slowly but remorselessly. That’s a sound technique but unfortunately it’s one that Carreras never mastered. Instead of a slow burn we just get slowness.

A man arrives at a small hotel somewhere in the Camargue district of southern France. He has a fight with his woman companion, she leaves and he stays. We later find out that he’s a painter and was apparently the rich woman’s toyboy.

The man, Paul Farrell (played by Kerwin Mathews), takes a bit of a shine to the waitress, Annette (Liliane Brousse). She’s the young woman we saw in the opening sequence. Her stepmother Eve (Nadia Gray) seems to disapprove and we soon discover why. She’s interested in Paul, as well. She seems determined to get him, and she does. He’s a fairly weak-willed kind of guy and he’s prepared to go along with this but then he learns about her husband (the one with the blowtorch) who is now in a hospital for the criminally insane. Being weak-willed he allows himself to be drawn into a scheme to get her husband out of the asylum, and this proves to be a very bad idea on his part and events start spiralling out of control.

The major problem is not so much the slow pacing as the fact that the characters are poorly developed and they fail to engage us sufficiently for us to care what happens to them. Whether this is due to Carreras’s shortcomings as a director, or Sangster’s screenplay, or simply dull acting, is difficult to pinpoint. It seems to be a combination of all of the above.

There are compensations though. The locations are great and they’re well used. Carreras does manage to pull off a few fairly impressive visual set-pieces, such as the opening sequence already mentioned and several others. Carreras was not without ability but he had chronic problems pulling the various elements in his films together. The result is less than the sum of its component parts. It’s a movie that looks very good but the structure is too weak to make a really effective thriller although Sangster throws in the expected plot twists with a fair degree of success.

This movie is one of six Hammer black-and-white psycho-thrillers included in the Icons of Suspense boxed set, a generally excellent set that is well worth getting.

Even if Maniac is less than completely satisfying it’s still worth a look, if only for the unusual setting and the impressive photography.

Friday, 13 April 2012

13 Ghosts (1960)

13 Ghosts is one of William Castle’s better-known schlocky horror movies, and your enjoyment of the movie will depend entirely on how willing you are to accept its schlockiness as part of its charm.

Castle’s movies were not in the same class as the Hammer gothic horror movies or Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies of the same vintage. Castle was not a great film-maker; he was essentially a carnival huckster. I don’t mean that disrespectfully - I have a soft spot for carnival hucksters. But if you’re expecting something of the quality of the movies Terence Fisher was making for Hammer at that time or Corman’s poe films then you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand if you’re going to try to take a William Castle movie seriously then you’re missing the point. These were supposed to be silly fun lightweight movies.

Of course it wouldn’t be a William Castle movie without a gimmick and for this one he came up with one of his best gimmicks - the ghost viewer. This was to be supplied to every member of the audience. If you believed in ghosts you looked through one slot; if you didn’t believe in ghosts you looked through the other slot. Apparently if you looked through the disbeliever’s slot the ghosts on the screen would disappear! It’s a cool idea, and really not much dottier than some of the things that “serious” ghost hunters came up with in the early part of the 20th century.

And ghost hunting is what this movie is all about. Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) is a mild-mannered palaeontologist with one big weakness - he’s hopeless with money. He’s a devoted family man but he can’t manage money and the furniture has just been repossessed. So it seems like a lucky break when his rich uncle Plato Zorba dies and leaves him a big old house. Unfortunately there’s no money, just the house, but the house does come with some extra features - thirteen ghosts!

Plato Zorba was a ghost hunter and he captured the ghosts. If you can see a ghost you gain power over it and Plato Zorba invented a ghost viewer (just like the ones the audience receives free of charge!) that allowed him to do just that. He installed his ghost collection in his house.

Naturally, being a haunted house movie, his will stipulated that Cyrus and his family must live in the house or else it will go to the state.

There’s a further complication. Uncle Plato’s will makes no mention of any money and his bank accounts contained no money at all when he died but he was a very rich man. It turns out that he converted all his monetary assets into cash shortly before his death. Since he never ever left the house in the last decade of his life it is reasonable to assume that it is hidden somewhere in the house. A search was made after his death, to no avail, but the money has to be somewhere.

Naturally there’s a mysterious elderly female housekeeper reputed to be a witch, who was actually Plato Zorba’s assistant and medium. And there just happens to be a Ouija board lying about, so naturally the children, Buck and Medea (yes her name really is Medea), want to try it out. And contact is made with the ghosts! Pretty soon the ghosts become a constant presence and the family is about to move out when they are persuaded to try a séance.

No audience member over the age of ten will have much trouble figuring out how the plot is going to play out.

The acting is not that great (although some of the actors were quite competent in other roles), but the last thing you’d want in a William Castle movie would be good acting. That would spoil everything!

The basic idea is not a bad one but it’s never really developed. The basic idea behind the special effects is not entirely bad either - tinting the screen blue (the movie is in black-and-white) whenever the ghosts appear and superimposing red images of the ghosts. Unfortunately the ghosts themselves are very very silly. But then the movie is intended to be goofy and fun. I don’t know if this movie has been subjected to the MST3K treatment but if it was it was a mistake. You can’t ridicule a movie like this - it’s such an obvious parody and so clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek to begin with.

One gets the impression with Castle’s movies that he didn’t come up with a gimmick to promote the movies, he came up with a gimmick first and then built a movie around it.

It’s not a great horror movie, or even a good one, but if you approach it in the right spirit it’s a good deal of fun.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I, Monster (1971)

Anyone who makes horror movies is pretty much obliged at some point to have a go at Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal tale Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Amicus Productions were no exception. In 1971 they came up with a fairly decent version, I, Monster.

Of course the very fact that the story had been adapted so many times already by the 70s made it almost obligatory to try to come up with a new twist. Stevenson’s original story could be seen as a scientific gloss on an essentially religious notion, the dualist concept of good and evil, the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, God and Satan. Dr Jekyll believes these qualities co-exist in every human being. There is of course more to the story than that but it’s still essentially good and evil.

Hammer’s second version of Stevenson’s classic was also released in 1971 - Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Their twist was to add another dualism - male and female.

Amicus’s approach was to add Freud to the mix (Milton Subotsky did the screenplay). Dr Jekyll (who in their version becomes Dr Charles Marlowe and is played by Christopher Lee) believes in Freud’s theories regarding the id, the ego and the superego. He has developed a drug that has a curious effect on laboratory animals - they either become unusually timid or unusually aggressive. When he tests it on several patients and then on himself he begins to understand what is happening. The drug can have the effect of making either the superego or the id entirely dominant. If it’s the former the subject becomes so racked with guilt that he becomes pathetically submissive and apologetic, and fearful. If it’s the latter the subject becomes over-confident and childishly irresponsible and impulsive.

Some of this Freudian idea is implied in Stevenson’s story although Stevenson wrote it before Freud started to make his reputation - the repression of the evil side by the good side could be seen as a kind of anticipation of some of Freud’s ideas.

As Dr Marlowe discovers (since in his case it’s the id that takes over completely) he can also become tempted by evil and violence. In fact there are no longer any mental obstacles to a total immersion in the pursuit of pleasure. And this pleasure can take the form of pleasure in destruction and extreme violence. As Edward Blake (as I, Monster’s version of Mr Hyde is known) he becomes very dangerous indeed.

Apart from this fairly major change the rest of the plot follows the fairly standard Jekyll and Hyde template. Edward Blake starts to take over completely. Only one real obstacle stands in his way - Marlowe’s friend Frederic Utterson (Peter Cushing), who knows far too much. He suspects Black of being a blackmailer with Marlowe as his victim but he knows enough that there is a strong likelihood he will eventually discover the truth.

Peter Cushing was something of a specialist at mad scientist roles and might have been a better fit for the Dr Jekyll/Dr Marlowe role but there’s no question that Christopher Lee was better suited to play his Mr Hyde/Edward Black alter ego. In fact Christopher Lee handles both parts extremely well. Cushing is therefore relegated to what is really a supporting role in which he’s slightly under-utilised but still (as usual) very good.

Director Stephen Weeks had a brief and undistinguished career and it’s easy to see why. His helming of this film is competent but dull. On the other hand the movie looks quite good. Amicus generally avoided period pieces, presumably in an effort to give their movies a slightly different feel compared to Hammer’s, but this time they go for a period setting and pull it off quite well.

The transformation scenes are always a challenge in a Jekyll and Hyde picture. This one gets around the difficulty by mostly having them happen off-camera, although in one instance we see the transformation take place in Marlowe/Black’s shadow - an idea that works fairly well.

This is not one of my favourite adaptations of Stevenson’s story but it’s still an entertaining horror flick. Worth seeing for one of Christopher Lee’s most adventurous horror film performances.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but features an excellent widescreen transfer.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Straight On Till Morning (1972)

One thing you have to say about Michael Carreras - he didn’t believe in playing it safe. Of course if he had believed in playing it safe Hammer Films might have had a better chance of survival but we wouldn’t have had bizarre little offerings like Straight On Till Morning.

When Michael Carreras took over the reins of Hammer from his father Sir James Carreras he wanted to take the studio in a more adventurous and more arty direction. What the horror audience wanted was boobs and gore. He wanted to give them art, combined with boobs and gore. Even for horror film-makers in Europe, where they have more tolerance for perversities such as art, that’s never been a guaranteed money-making formula.

In 1971 Carreras got the idea of making a movie starring Rita Tushingham. Now if you can think of a more unlikely actress to star in a Hammer film then you’re cleverer than I am. She’s a fine actress but she’s pretty much the antithesis of a Hammer scream queen. John Peacock would write the script, and in fact he wrote it specifically as a starring vehicle for Tushingham. Peter Collinson was signed as director. He’d made a pretty reasonable horror flick called Fright a year earlier but a quick check of his filmography would have revealed a disturbing taste for dreary socially conscious kitchen sink dramas like Up the Junction.

Not surprisingly Straight On Till Morning is all over the place. Is it a psychological horror film, an art film, a socially conscious comment on the decadence of Swinging London or a fairy tale? It’s all of those things, in a rather uneasy mix.

Brenda (Rita Tushingham) is a painfully shy socially awkward fashion-challenged young woman who announces to he mother that she’s leaving Liverpool to head for London to find a father for her baby. In fact she’s not pregnant, but that’s because she hasn’t found a father for the baby yet. She is clearly a virgin. She arrives in London and despite being the last person you’d expect to land a job in an ultra-trendy boutique she immediately lands a job in an ultra-trendy boutique. And she finds a place to live, sharing a flat with blonde dollybird Caroline (Katya Wyeth). Brenda meets a nice young man named Joey (James Bolam) but having no social skills she doesn’t get the message that he’s not interested. When she walks into Caroline’s bedroom to find Caroline and Joey having sex she gets the message.

What does our heroine do now? She spots an amazingly beautiful young man. She figures the best way to meet a man is to kidnap his dog. I guess it’s one way of doing it. And it works. The young man, Peter (Shane Briant), tells her she can live in his flat and keep house for him on the condition that he can call her Wendy. His dog’s name is Tinker. Even though the rather child-like Brenda loves children’s stories and writes them in her spare time she doesn’t pick up the fact that this young man actually think he’s Peter Pan. Or if she does realise it, she doesn’t mind. That’s a big mistake. Young men with a Peter Pan fixation may have other issues as well.

And Peter has lots of issues. He hates beauty, although he makes his living from his own beauty, picking up middle-aged women with a thing for beautiful boys. He gets lots of money this way. He also kills people. But he is very handsome and he tells Brenda/Wendy they will stay together forever and ever. They’re both people who have never grown up and they’re drifting into a dangerous folie à deux. You know this is going to end very badly.

Collinson’s direction is very self-consciously arty with lots of cross-cutting and mini-flashbacks and other tricks to break up the linear narrative. You’ll either enjoy this or you’ll find it irritating. I think it works, mostly.

Much the same can be said for Tushingham’s performance, which is either touchingly vulnerable or annoyingly overdone depending on your point of view. The best thing about the movie is Shane Briant. He is both convincingly child-like and almost angelic and at the same time chillingly psychotic. James Bolam and Katya Wyeth are both excellent.

Visually it’s very much of its time. The feel is very 60s but the look is very early 70s.

While there’s no gore at all the film has some truly horrifying moments. It tries too hard to be clever and it can be irritating but if you accept it as a kind of twisted fairy tale is an interesting if strange movie. Worth a look.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Der Hexer (The Magician, 1964)

Der Hexer (The Magician or The Ringer) is one of the Edgar Wallace krimis made by Rialto Studios in Germany from the late 50s and right through the 60s. And it’s one of the best.

In a good krimi you expect a touch of the gothic, an ingenious and very intricate plot, some fairly decent comic relief, a hint of sleaze, plenty of action and a dash of weirdness. Der Hexer ticks all of those boxes. The only element missing is the usual obligatory night-club scene which was an excuse for a bit of mild sleaze (the producers of these pictures were under the rather charming impression that the English at that time spent much of their lives in strip joints in Soho). But it certainly has all the other ingredients and they’re combined rather nicely.

This one is based on The Ringer, one of Wallace’s 175 novels. It opens in fine style with the secretary to a London solicitor being murdered and her body being paced in a midget submarine! What the murderers don’t realise is that the secretary was the sister of Arthur Milton, the notorious criminal knows as The Ringer (although the subtitles always refer to him as The Magician). He was a criminal but his victims were other criminals and the implication is that he was a kind of vigilante/private crimefighter. He was deported to Australia (apparently the British were still transporting convicts to the penal colonies in Australia in the early 1960s!) where he now lives in exile.

Inspector Bryan Edgar Higgins of Scotland Yard (Joachim Fuchsberger) is assigned to the case by his superior, referred to only as Sir John (most people in Britain of course have knighthoods). The Inspector’s name is a typical krimi in-joke since Edgar Wallace’s son Bryan Edgar Wallace wrote crime thrillers as well, many of which were made into krimis. Inspector Higgins lost his drive’s licence for speeding but luckily he has a beautiful blonde girlfriend named Elise to drive him around. Higgins also does some photographic work for the police although as we discover early on his photographic work seems mostly to involve taking nude photos of Sir John’s glamorous secretary (senior British police officers always have secretaries who look like models).

Higgins knows that The Magician will try to return to London for his sister’s funeral, so it should be easy to pick him up. It’s a good theory but The Magician is a master of disguise and he eludes the police.

What Higgins has stumbled into is a white slavery racket involving bogus clergymen and midget submarines. I love these Edgar Wallace krimis so much! The Magician is as keen as is Scotland Yard to bring these criminals to justice but his methods are likely to be rather more brutal and rather less legal than the Yard’s. The Magician has an ally. His beautiful blonde wife is now in England as well (the only women in this movie who aren’t glamorous blondes are the glamorous brunettes). An Australian named James Wesby (Heinz Drache) is snooping around as well and seems a likely candidate to turn out to be The Magician but with the characteristically convoluted plotting of these films the solution to the mystery is unlikely to be as simple as that.

With the ever-reliable Alfred Vohrer directing this is a fast-moving and stylish movie. Eddi Arendt is on hand as always in the Rialto krimis to handle the comic relief duties which he does quite well. One of the strengths of these films is that the comic elements never become annoying and don’t interfere with the action. Herbert Reinecker’s screenplay is packed with red herrings and outrageous coincidences and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Joachim Fuchsberger and Heinz Drache will be familiar faces to krimi fans. These movies were the mainstay of the German film industry in the 60s and they could call on the services of some very fine actors. The acting is always very good. Sophie Hardy as Elise is both competent and suitably glamorous (English policemen at this time always had girlfriends who looked like lingerie models).

These movies were always set in England and filmed entirely in Germany and the film-makers’ knowledge of what England was really like was gleaned mostly from Edgar Wallace novels! The English police are always heavily armed and always willing to resort to gunplay. The entirely erroneous nature of their knowledge of England is one of the great joys of the krimis.

The German Tobis DVD includes both the English dubbed version and the original German soundtrack with English subtitles and as usual they’ve got their hands on a very nice widescreen print.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962)

Nudist camp movies enjoyed something of a vogue in the late 50s in the wake of a US Supreme Court ruling that nudity as such was not obscene. But it had to be presented in a non-sexual way. Nudist camp movies got around that problem, but even nude volleyball palls after a while. Russ Meyer solved the problem by inventing the nudie-cutie which mixed non-sexual nudity with a flimsy plot and comedy. His first effort, The Immoral Mr Teas, was hugely successful and was widely copied. Nudie-cuties proliferated. One of the many film-makers who jumped on the bandwagon was Doris Wishman.

Wishman was self-taught and her film-making style was eccentric and wildly individualistic. Once you get used to it it’s fascinating in its own bizarre way. In 1961 Wishman made one of the more imaginative nudie-cuties, Nude on the Moon, about astronauts who reach the Moon to find it’s full of nudists!

In 1962 she followed up with Blaze Starr Goes Nudist. Like most of Wishman’s early movies it’s a sort of hybrid, a nudist camp movie with a cursory plot tacked on.

Burlesque star Blaze Starr plays actress Blaze Starr who is suffering from stress. She needs to find a way to relax. When she sees a movie about a nudist colony she thinks she’s found the answer. What could be more relaxing than taking your clothes off? So she decides that from now on she’ll be spending her weekends at the nudist camp.

Her agent (who is also her boyfriend) is suffering from stress as well - Blaze no longer makes any personal appearances or attends studio publicity events. And where does she go to on the weekends? She’s about to sign a new film contract but the studio boss might not be pleased at her un-cooperativeness. But there’s something he doesn’t know about the studio boss.

That’s it for the plot.

As an actress Blaze Starr is passable enough for a movie like this. Since she was a famous strip-tease artiste the film teases us as well - will she actually disrobe? Will we see her playing volleyball? Of course she does strip, but the movie makes us wait. She doesn’t play volleyball though.

Apart from the flimsy plot the movie offers copious quantities of nudity. Of course in 1962 you could only go so far - there are bare bottoms and breasts but no frontal nudity. Well, almost none. Part of the art of making such a film was to tempt the audience into thinking they might see more than they really do and there are brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashes of pubic hair, fairly daring for the time.

One thing that really annoys me is when modern online reviewers encounter a film like this and make snide remarks about the women, describing them as ugly because they don’t conform to modern standards of female beauty (and often because, shock horror, they actually do have pubic hair). These are women who look like women, not undernourished teenage boys. In 1962 the women in this movie would have been considered to be pretty stunning, which they are.

The arrogance of our own times is such that we often assume that people in the 50s and 60s were terribly strait-laced and repressed but as Dave Friedman pointed out in his wonderful book A Youth in Babylon exploitation film-makers in those days never had a problem finding women prepared to take their clothes off for movies (just as magazines like Playboy had no great problems finding women prepared to pose naked for them). The women of the 50s were rather less repressed than we imagine. We tend to believe the English poet Philip Larkin who assured us that sexual intercourse began in 1963.

So what do you get in Blaze Starr Goes Nudist? You get plenty of beautiful naked ladies. You get a mildly amusing plot. You get one of the legends of burlesque in her birthday suit. You get beehive hairdos (which I thoroughly approve of). You get silly harmless fun. You also get nude chess. This was one of those fascinating quirks of Doris Wishman’s film-making style - she had a thing for nude chess. Not that there’s anything wrong with nude chess. One of the reasons chess has never caught on in a big way as a spectator sport is that most chess players insist on wearing clothes. Maybe Wishman was on to something.

Since the DVD comes from Something Weird Video there are several extras including Blaze Starr doing some of her actual strip-tease routines. If you’re a fan of burlesque that might well be the highlight of the package. It's also available as a double-header DVD paired with the amazing Nude on the Moon.

An oddity, but an interesting one.