Monday, 29 April 2013

The Amazing Mr X (1948)

The Amazing Mr X is a bit of an oddity. In the late 40s horror movies were very much out of favour. But this isn’t quite a horror movie. It’s more of a psychological thriller with hints of the supernatural. This 1948 release from Eagle-Lion, directed by Bernard Vorhaus, also has one huge factor in its favour - it was photographed by the great John Alton. That’s reason enough to watch any movie.

After two years Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) has still not recovered from the death of her husband Paul. Walking along the beach on her way to a date with her current boyfriend Martin (Richard Carlson) she thinks she hears Paul’s voice calling to her. On the beach she encounters a mysterious stranger (played by Turhan Bey). His pet raven is a pretty sure sign that he has some connection with the occult. He seems to know all about Christine, in fact he knows things that no stranger could possibly know.

She later finds out that the stranger, whose name is Alexis, is a psychic. Her kid sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) is sure that this Alexis must be a fake. Janet and Martin hire a private detective to investigate him. The detective, Hoffmann (Harry Mendoza), used to be a stage magician. Like most professional illusionists he has an extreme dislike for phony psychics and there is nothing he enjoys more than exposing the tricks used by fake mediums. As he explains, he knows all their tricks.

We soon discover that Alexis is indeed a fake. But as fake psychics go he’s very good indeed. To be a success at that racket you need a considerable understanding of psychology and a great deal of charm. Alexis has both. Even though Janet is convinced he’s a charlatan she is still charmed by him. Even the private detective can’t help having a grudging respect for Alexis - he recognises that Alexis is a true pro. Alexis quickly attains an overwhelming influence on Christine. She is exactly the sort of woman who is vulnerable to such tricksters - she is emotional, she is troubled, and she is rich.

Alexis soon finds that he is not the only phony with his claws into Christine, and he becomes involved (not entirely willingly) in a sinister and dangerous plot. Both Christine and Janet are endangered.

The plot sounds a bit thin, and it is. Fortunately this movie is particularly well executed and it has several large pluses in its favour. The characters are exceptionally well-developed and complex. Janet knows with the rational part of her mind that Alexis is a fake but she can’t help being swept off her feet. Alexis is very complex indeed. He’s a phony and a swindler but he does have certain moral standards. There are some lines he will not cross, and the plot he finds himself involved crosses those lines. He can play along and make a great deal of money or he can do the decent thing for once and put himself at risk of exposure. Alexis himself does not know which choice he will make until the time comes when he must make a decision.

Turhan Bey is perfectly cast. He is suave and charming but without being irritating. We know Alexis is a crook but we can’t help liking him. It’s a nicely judged performance. Turhan Bey is careful never to allow Alexis to become a figure of fun. In fact the movie as a whole avoids playing the situation in the obvious way, which would have been for laughs.

Lynn Bari does a fine job as Christine, a character who could easily have come across as an airhead, but fortunately everyone concerned in this production took it seriously enough to avoid making any of the characters seem foolish. Cathy O’Donnell is pert and lively and generally charming as Janet. Harry Mendoza makes the most of his small role as the magician turned private detective. Donald Curtis is an effective villain.

The real star though is cinematographer John Alton. Genius is an over-worked word but there’s really no other way to describe Alton. The style of the movie is obviously inspired by Val Lewton’s successful series of horror movies made at RKO in the 40s, and Alton was a master of that kind of moody photography. He pulls off some wonderfully inventive shots,  notably a shot where Janet is leaning over a sink and the camera appears to be shooting her from inside the sink. These kinds of camera tricks can be unnecessarily distracting but in a horror movie such as this they work extremely well, adding considerably to the atmosphere. This really is a superbly photographed movie. Alton also does some impressive deep-focus work.

Sadly Image Entertainment’s DVD doesn’t really do full justice to Alton’s cinematography. There’s a lot of print damage, although luckily apart from this the picture quality is pretty good.

The Amazing Mr X is a movie that could very easily be overlooked, and to a great extent that’s been its fate. It’s a thoroughly charming and highly enjoyable movie with a nice mix of spookiness, suspense and romance. Highly recommended.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Bloodlust! (1961)

There have been countless movies either based directly, or inspired by,  Richard Connell’s great short story The Most Dangerous Game. The definitive version remains the 1932 Hollywood adaptation. Bloodlust!, distributed by Crown International Pictures and released in 1961, is an attempt to adapt the story in such a way as to appeal to the drive-in audience. It’s not quite a teenage version of The Most Dangerous Game, but it is a version calculated to appeal to the teenage audience.

Four young people on holiday discover an unknown island. They’re bored so they decide to investigate. The skipper of their boat, a drunk known as Tony, discovers too late that they’ve made a landing on the island in the dinghy. If he hadn’t been drunk again he’d have warned them not to set foot on the island.

Johnny (Robert Reed), Pete (Eugene Persson), Betty (June Kenney) and Jeanne (Joan Lora) soon find evidence that the island is not uninhabited as they’d first thought. They are taken at gunpoint to a large house where they meet the owner of the island, Dr Albert Balleau (Wilton Graff). They are then told about Dr Balleau’s hobby. He likes to hunt, but hunting animals no longer interests him. During the war he’d been a sniper and he’d discovered the pleasure of hunting the most dangerous game of all, man.

Johnny and Pete are to be his next trophies, to be hunted, killed and then stuffed and mounted and placed in a niche in the trophy room.

Dr Balleau’s wife Sandra (Lilyan Chauvin) and her alcoholic admirer Dean (Walter Brooke) also live on the island. They’ve been wanting to escape for a year and now they see their chance. They will try to reach the boats moored in a hidden cove on the far side of the island while Johnny and Pete keep Dr Balleau occupied. It’s a good plan, but not good enough.

Dr Balleau believes in giving his prey a sporting chance. He is to hunt Johnny, Pete and Tony and he takes with only three quarrels for his crossbow, one for each of them. And he gives them a gun, containing one bullet, so they have one chance to kill him first. Since Dr Balleau knows the jungles on the island like the back of his hand it’s not much of a chance, but it is better than nothing.

Dr Balleau and his assistant Jondor (Bobby Hall) now set out on the hunt.

Robert Reed (best known as Mike Brady in TV’s The Brady Bunch) seems like an unlikely action hero. He gives it his best shot but he’s not very convincing. The one actor whose performance stands out is Wilton Graff. He plays his role like a poor man’s Vincent Price. He’s not terribly scary but he is at least entertaining.

Writer-producer-director Ralph Brooke made only a handful of movies before his death in 1963 at the age of 43. Considering the very low budget he has to work with he does a competent enough job.

The low budget doesn’t really detract from the story too much. The sets are basic but functional and the hunting scenes, although obviously done in a studio, look reasonable. The pacing is rather slow, so even with its modest 68-minute running time it feels like it’s been padded out.

The violence is about as graphic as you could get away with in 1961, with some moderately gruesome dissection scenes and the odd severed head.

This movie is included in Mill Creek’s Drive-In Cult Classics collection. The movie is presented fullframe which is apparently the correct aspect ratio. By Mill Creek standards it’s a fairly reasonable print. The movie was made in black-and-white. Picture and sound quality are both acceptable.

Bloodlust! is not by any means a good movie but if you accept it as a low-budget drive-in thriller it’s not as bad as you might expect, and Wilton Graff is amusing. Worth a rental if you’re curious to see Mike Brady as an action hero.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Black Sleep (1956)

The Black Sleep was released just one year before Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Hammer’s cycle of gothic horror movies would soon make black-and-white horror movies like The Black Sleep look very dated. The Black Sleep does indeed look back to the past, to the great Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, but today that no longer seems to be such a great problem. We can judge this movie by its own standards and accept that it is a worthy successor to the Universal movies.

The casting is another feature that makes this movie’s debt to the past very obvious. Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr had all starred in Universal horror films. In 1956 that might have been a weakness but to modern fans of classic horror movies it’s a distinct plus.

Basil Rathbone is Sir Joel Cadman, famous as a very distinguished surgeon, but in reality a mad scientist. It is 1872. Dr Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) had been a pupil of Cadman, but now he lies in Newgate Prison awaiting execution for the murder of a money lender. Cadman visits him in his cell the night before the execution and gives him a drug to drink in the morning. He tells him it is a strong sedative that will allow him to endure the horror he is about to face.

When next we see Dr Ramsay he is in his coffin, but he is not dead. Sir Joel revives him and informs him that it is the morning after his execution. The sentence had not been carried out because Dr Ramsay had been fund apparently dead in his cell. But he was not dead. The drug Sir Joel had given him was the Black Sleep, a drug that produces a state of suspended animation indistinguishable from death. He has saved Dr Ramsay’s life, and Dr Ramsay is now to be his assistant.

Cadman is conducting experiments on the brain. He is unquestionably a genius and has gone further than any previous researcher in unlocking the secrets of the brain. Apart from his scientific curiosity he has another reason for his zeal to discover the brain’s secrets - his wife lies in a coma, the victim of a brain tumour. Cadman hopes to use his knowledge to save her. Cadman is aided by the gypsy Odo (Akim Tamiroff) who supplies him with subjects for his experiments.

The secret laboratory of Sir Joel Cadman is soon revealed to be a chamber of horrors, inhabited by the pathetic shells of men and women who had been subjects of his experiments. Men like the great Dr Munroe, now a shambling murderous monster known as Mungo (Lon Chaney Jr). There are other secrets hidden in Cadman’s laboratory, secrets that have great relevance to Dr Ramsay’s own awkward position.

Dr Ramsay had initially been grateful to Cadman for saving his life, but after discovering the nature of Cadman’s researches he is filled with horror. But what can he do? He cannot go to the authorities since that would mean that he would face execution. He must continue to aid Cadman in his experiments whilst hoping for an opportunity to escape from this nightmare.

While Lugosi, Chaney and Carradine share top billing with Rathbone and Tamiroff, the real star is Basil Rathbone. He has by far the most important, and also the most interesting, part. He makes a splendid mad scientist. It’s an understated performance, which makes it all the more chilling. Sir Joel Cadman is a man of science, a humane and civilised man, who also happens to be quite mad.

This is classic mad scientist stuff, with Sir Joel Cadman belonging to the sub-category of mad scientists who started out as sincere seekers after knowledge who somewhere along the way lost the plot and became, without realising it, monsters.

Tamiroff has fun as the gypsy. Lon Chaney gets little to do apart from shuffling about and trying to strangle people. Poor Bela Lugosi gets little more than a non-speaking bit part. In 1956 he had to take any work he could get but it’s still sad to see him reduced to such insignificant roles. John Carradine’s role is also small but he makes the most of it, overacting outrageously as one of Cadman’s patients who is convinced he is Bohemond the crusader, on the way to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens.

Director Reginald Le Borg does a competent job. The visual style of the movie is clearly inspired by the classic Universal horror movies, and that’s no bad thing. The sets look reasonably impressive and in general the movie looks better than you’d expect given its low budget.

The Black Sleep has been released by MGM as a made-on-demand DVD. It’s shamefully overpriced but it’s a nice enough print although it would have been even nicer if they’d released it in its correct aspect ratio. As it is this is probably the only opportunity you’re going to get to see this movie so such minor annoyances have to be overlooked.

The Black Sleep is thoroughly entertaining gothic horror and is highly recommended.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

War Gods of Babylon (1962)

War Gods of Babylon (Le sette folgori di Assur) is a 1962 peplum that is in many ways very untypical of this genre. The fact that there are no monsters or supernatural agencies in the film is not that unusual, but this movie also does not include a muscleman superhero, nor does it include a beautiful but evil queen.

As the movie unfolds other elements will become obvious that also make this an unusual peplum. It’s played very straight indeed. There’s really nothing remotely camp about this movie. The actors play it straight as well - there’s no scenery-chewing. In fact they’re actually trying to play the characters as real people rather than the two-dimensional heroes and villains of the average peplum. And the tone of the movie is rather dark, and as it progresses it becomes steadily darker. This is more of a tragedy than an adventure romp.

The semi-legendary figure of Sardanapalus appealed strongly to the 19th century Romantics and the later Decadents. Sardanapalus has been identified with several actual Assyrian kings including Ashurbanipal but the legend that attracted the Romantics has little to do with any actual historical figure. This movie draws its inspiration from the colourful tales told by later Greek historians. These tales certainly contain the ingredients for a wonderful historical epic but they really require a rather more over-the-top and overtly decadent treatment than they get in this film. Ken Russell could have great fun with this story.

Sardanapalus (Howard Duff) is the king of Assyria, ruling a mighty empire from his capital at Ninevah. He is devoted to his younger brother Shammash. When a wandering holy man named Zoroaster (Arnoldo Foà) arrives in the city he is accompanied by a young woman named Mirra (Jocelyn Lane) whose village had been destroyed by bandits. Zoroaster preaches against worldly empires that oppress the common people. The high priests of Ninevah accuse him of blasphemy and he seems destined to be executed. But the young Prince Shammash takes a rather strong liking to his young female companion. Mirra will not have anything to do with Shammash unless Zoroaster is freed. Shammash appeals to his brother the king. King Sardanapalus is a rather easy-going guy and he is happy to free Zoroaster in order to please his brother.

Prince Shammash falls madly in love with Mirra, but complications arise when Mirra meets Sardanapalus. She and Sardanapalus fall in love, but both Mirra and Sardanapalus feel a strong sense of loyalty to young Shammash and they agree to renounce their love. Unfortunately by this time Shammash has figured out that Mirra and Sardanapalus are in love, and he takes it very badly.

Even more unluckily, Sardanapalus has decided to install Shammash as king of the Assyrians’ subject city of Babylon. This would have been a fine idea before Mirra came between Sardanapalus and Shammash. Now it’s a very bad idea since the Babylonians, who resent their subjugation by the Assyrians, now have a king with a major grudge against the King of Assyria.

Shammash’s Babylonian advisers encourage him to defy his brother the Assyrian king but in fact their plans are considerably more devious than this. They want to free Babylon from the Assyrian yoke but they have no loyalty at all to Shammash. He is merely a tool in their hands.

Howard Duff does quite well as Sardanapalus. It was a curious decision on the part of the film-makers to treat Sardanapalus as a fairly conventional hero. I’m not sure that it was the right choice but Duff makes him a sympathetic and very human character. Unfortunately this leaves the movie without a strong hero. Sardanapalus is a brave man who tries to behave honourably but he’s a long way from being a typical peplum hero.

Jocelyn Lane is perfectly adequate as Mirra. Luciano Marin doesn’t seem quite sure how to approach the role of Shammash, whether to play him as a conventional romantic hero or a man tortured by conflicting loyalties. He ends up being overshadowed by Howard Duff’s much more confident performance.

The subject matter would have lent itself to a much more extravagant and more overtly decadent approach. Sardanapalus as decadent hero would have been a perfect role for Charles Laughton, especially if Cecil B. DeMille had been directing. In this case the director was Silvio Amadio and while he’s competent he can’t overcome the movie’s lack of a really strong central hero character.

The movie does have some very considerable pluses. The action scenes are good and the miniatures work is excellent. The flood that provides the film’s exciting climax looks very effective.

Retromedia’s DVD release will please devotees of this genre. The print isn’t perfect but it’s more than acceptable, the colours are reasonably vibrant and most importantly the aspect ratio is correct and the film is uncut. Overall it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer and can be highly recommended.

War Gods of Babylon is a handsome production with more psychological subtlety than you expect from a peplum. It’s fine entertainment and is unequivocally recommended.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Diary of a Madman (1963)

Diary of a Madman is the sort of 1960s Vincent Price movie that you’d expect to have been made by AIP, but in fact it was made by an outfit called Admiral Pictures and released by United Artists. It’s a competently made production but Vincent Price is the reason you’re going to watch such a movie.

It was based on a story by the famed 19th century short story writer Guy de Maupassant, and it offers us a slightly unusual monster. More about that later.

The movie opens with a funeral of respected magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price). Cordier has left behind him a diary, a diary that tells a strange and scarcely believable story. But why would such a distinguished man make something like this up? Especially when it doesn’t reflect all that creditably on his own reputation? We have to believe the story is true, or at least that Simon Cordier believed it to be true.

A murderer due to be guillotined three days hence asks for an interview with Cordier. The murderer tells the magistrate that he wasn’t responsible for the crimes. A force beyond his control had taken over his will. Suddenly the murderer lunges at Cordier, there is a struggle, and the murderer is killed.

While it’s a regrettable incident no blame can of course be attached to Cordier. But even so he is haunted by the incident. He soon comes to believe that the force that enslaved that murderer’s will is also enslaving his own will. He consults a psychiatrist and is advised that he needs to relax more. Perhaps he should take up sculpture again? Simon had been a keen and fairly talented sculptor in his youth. Simon takes the psychiatrist’s advice, and as a result he meets model Odette Mallotte (Nancy Kovack).

Odette is married, to a penniless artist. Cordier obviously has some feelings for her and a wealthy magistrate is certainly a much better prospect than a starving artist. This is obviously going to be an awkward situation, and that’s exactly what it proves to be.

Simon Cordier is now convinced he is under the power of the Horla. But what is the Horla? It seems to be a kind of mind vampire that feeds on evil, but interestingly enough even though it’s invisible it has a physical presence. That may prove to be significant. Cordier is compelled to carry out acts of violence by the Horla and he really seems to be powerless to defy this monster.

Of course the question that is left begging is, does the Horla really exist? Or is it a product of the mind? We’re never really sure. Simon Cordier is convinced it is real, but then if it was a product of his own mind it would still seem to him to be very very real.

Price is perfectly cast and does a fine job. This is Price as a sympathetic monster, a man who believes himself to be a good man and yet he is compelled to do evil. Price has no problems bringing out the contradictory and nightmarish qualities of the situation, and its essential ambiguity. Nancy Kovack is decorative enough and she’s reasonably competent.

Reginald le Borg had a very long career as a director in both movies and television. It’s easy enough to see why he remained a director of B movies, but it’s also easy to see why he was so successful in that role. He is not overly inspired but he carries out his task quite adequately.

MGM have released this movie in their made-on-demand series. It’s ridiculously overpriced but it’s a very decent print.

Unlike the movies Vincent Price was making for Roger Corman at the same time Diary of a Madman never transcends its B movie roots, but it’s entertaining and it gives Price a good meaty role that he makes the most of. If you’re a fan of B horror movies or of Vincent Price you’ll want to see this movie, although you may not be happy paying the price MGM is asking for it. At a reasonable price it would be a must-buy. At this price it’s still definitely worth a rental.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Haunted: Poor Girl (1974)

Poor Girl was a 1974 episode of a British television series called Haunted broadcast by Granada. Each hour-long episode was a kind of short made-for-television horror film. Poor Girl, based on a story by the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor, is an excellent example of the kind of subtle horror that British television used to be so good at.

Florence Chasty (Lynne Miller) is a young governess who arrives at a large country house to take charge of the education of nine-year-old Hilary Wilson. Her parents, Oliver and Louise Wilson, warn her that Hilary can be a bit of a handful and that proves to be an understatement. He’s a nice enough lad but he’s stubborn and willful and he soon develops a rather embarrassing crush on Miss Chasty.

Miss Chasty has other problems. She starts to see things that aren’t there. She sees herself in the mirror but she looks different and is dressed differently. She also keeps seeing a young couple who aren’t there. Is she seeing ghosts? Is she seeing into the past? Or is she perhaps seeing into the future?

Judging by the way the young couple are dressed one suspects it’s the future that she’s getting glimpses of, but whose future?

It’s also fairly obvious that the master of the house, Oliver Wilson, is interested in her in a rather inappropriate way. And it’s equally obvious that Miss Chasty to some extent at least reciprocates those feelings. Oliver Wilson has apparently done this sort of thing before, judging by his wife’s reaction. His wife was already half inclined to give the young governess her marching orders, but perhaps surprisingly she doesn’t. She seems to be rather resigned to her husband’s indiscretions as long as he’s discreet about them.

Miss Chasty becomes more and more disturbed. She also develops a tendency to see Oliver Wilson when she’s looking at young Hilary, and to see Hilary when she’s looking at Oliver.

Whether anything supernatural is going on remains rather mysterious, and the screenplay by Robin Chapman is content to leave things fairly ambiguous. This is in my view one of the film’s strengths. There are no obvious ghosts or ghostly phenomena. This is more of an uncanny tale than an actual ghost story. By the end we may think we know what has been going on, but doubts linger. We are after all seeing things through the eyes of an impressionable, repressed and perhaps slightly unstable young woman. And even if we’re right, it still doesn’t really explain what has happened.

The acting is uniformly of a high standard, as you expect in 1970s British television. Lynne Miller is very good as Miss Chasty, playing her as a young woman who is basically rather meek but with obvious passions smouldering beneath the surface. Matthew Pollock is superb as young Hilary.

It’s never explicitly stated but we can certainly infer from internal evidence that the setting is the Edwardian era.

Poor Girl is visually impressive, with some wonderful locations and the kinds of lavish (by television standards) sets and costumes that one is accustomed to from British television of the 70s.

Network DVD have paired this one with another episode from the same series, the equally good The Ferryman. Picture quality is far from outstanding but it’s acceptable.

Poor Girl is a fine understated piece of subtle horror, relying effectively on suggestion and atmosphere rather than going for cheap thrills and gore. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Youth Runs Wild (1944)

Youth Runs Wild was a 1944 product of Val Lewton’s legendary B-movie unit at RKO, but if you’re expecting it to be like his horror movies you’re going to be disappointed.

When we think of juvenile delinquent movies we naturally think of the 1950s, but in fact they were being made as early as the 1930s, Dorothy Davenport’s 1934 The Road To Ruin being an outstanding early example. The Road To Ruin was an exploitation movie, made outside the studio system and not subject to the Production Code, and it was therefore able to be fairly racy with drugs, booze and even nudity being featured. Youth Runs Wild on the other hand was a product of the studio system, and it’s very much blander.

Frankie Hauser (Glen Vernon) is 15 years old. He lives with his parents and his older sister Mary, whose husband Danny has gone off to war. Frankie is in love with the girl next door, Sarah. She’s an older woman, being 16 years old. The Hausers are an ordinary decent family.

Frankie had never been any problem to his parents, not until recently. Now he’s been playing truant from school. Both Mary and his parents are inclined to suspect that Sarah has been a bad influence on him, and this suspicion grows much stronger when Frankie finds himself hauled before a Juvenile Court. Frankie is now forbidden to see Sarah. Danny, now returned to the US after being wounded, is assigned parole of Frankie and his two youthful partners in crime.

Sarah has her own problems. Her parents are only interested in partying and as far as they’re concerned she’s just in the way.

Both Frankie and Sarah have been seeing quite a lot of Larry Duncan (Lawrence Tierney) and his girlfriend Toddy (Bonita Granville). Larry always seem to have lots of money, and this makes Frankie feel very inadequate. Frankie’s problem is that he is still just a kid, and he’s in too much of a hurry to grow up. Watching people like his brother-in-law Danny go off to war makes him feel even more of a kid. With the US war effort in full swing Frankie feels he is missing out, that kids only a few years older than him are in uniform and getting the respect that goes along with that.

The movie limps along to a painfully predictable ending, with an even more painful epilogue of government propaganda about the ways juvenile delinquency is being solved. The movie mostly takes the line that everything is the parents’ fault, although rather disturbingly it seems to imply that the government can and will fix everything.

The problem with this movie is that Hollywood had not yet invented the teenager, producers were not yet aiming movies specifically at the teen market, and teen subcultures   had not yet been recognised. As a result the movie lacks the focus on the clothes, the style, the music of teenagers that 50s juvenile delinquent movies have. It comes across as a movie aimed at the parents, intended as a stern warning of the dangers of neglecting their kids. Socially conscious movies with a message are almost always cringe-inducing and this particular movie is a prime example of that tendency. The screenplay is unbelievably clumsy and heavy-handed.

Mark Robson directed a couple of notable pictures for Lewton in the 40s, but this movie lacks the style of the Lewton horror films. The B-movie budget is painfully apparent and the story does not offer the opportunities for hiding the modest budget by the use of low-key lighting. The result is a movie that looks as dull as the story it is telling.

The acting is uniformly unimpressive, but given the blandness of the script, the terrible dialogue the actors had to work with and the heavy-handed message incorporated into virtually every scene, you really have to feel sorry for the cast. There really wasn’t much they could do. Even Lawrence Tierney seems unusually dull - Larry is just not a bad enough villain to give Tierney anything to sink his teeth into.

Youth Runs Wild remains no more than a curiosity in Val Lewton’s filmography. It lacks the camp value that makes 1950s juvenile delinquent movies so much fun and it’s painfully earnest. It’s a movie that wants to be an exploitation movie but everybody involved in making it was much too timid to go that route. It’s interesting to see a 1944 movie grappling with a phenomenon that was only just starting to attract attention, and also grappling with the stresses that the war imposed on people on the home front, but sitting through this movie is quite a chore, even with a running time of just 67 minutes. If nothing else, it proves that even Val Lewton could make a bad movie.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Black Sunday (1960)

It’s almost superfluous to write a review of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio). This movie has already garnered so much adulation. I’d seen it before of course, but now I’ve had the opportunity of seeing it on Blu-Ray.

The plot is hardly original and would itself be much imitated. It was very loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story The Viy but by the time it made it to the screen very little if anything remained of Gogol’s story.

This was Bava’s first official assignment as a director although he had already completed a couple of movies begun by other directors. It was to be his only black-and-white movie and it demonstrates his artistry in that medium.

A man and a woman are burnt for witchcraft in the 16th century. They pronounce the usual curses upon their persecutors, and their persecutors’ descendants. Asa’s chief persecutor had been her brother who held the office of Grand Inquisitor.

Two hundred years later the witch Asa will have her chance to execute her vengeance. The Princess Katia is the spitting image of Asa (both women being played by Barbara Steele). A middle-aged doctor and his young colleague unwittingly offer Asa her chance. The doctor cuts himself and the blood falls on Asa’s long-dead face, reawakening the witch to life (life of a sort anyway). What Asa now needs is a new body, and Princess Katia’s will do her just fine - thus neatly combining vengeance with her desire for renewed life.

Bava had been director of photography on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri in 1956 but the Italian horror boom really started to take off in the wake of the success of Hammer’s 1950s gothic horror films. Black Sunday shows an obvious Hammer influence but being shot in black-and-white it also shows the influence of the old Universal horror movies.

Bava did the cinematography for Black Sunday as well as directing so the movie’s visual style can be entirely credited to him. And the visual style is of course stunning. Bava offers us some very memorable images. Apart from the famous scene that introduces Barbara Steele to the film (the scene with Princess Katia and her two mastiffs) there’s also a particularly wonderful sequence of a carriage in the mist. The entire movie is a succession of wonderful images.

Barbara Steele’s extraordinary looks, her ability to appear both beautiful and evil with such ease, was obviously a huge contributing factor to the movie’s success. There was apparently some tension between Steele and Bava which might explain why he never worked with her again. The other cast members are all quite competent but it’s Steele who dominates the movie.

Arturo Dominici as Asa’s lover Javutich is almost as striking in appearance as Steele.

By the standards of 1960 this movie was fairly strong stuff and several scenes were considered to be too strong for the US theatrical release. In some later movies Bava would overdo the gore but in Black Sunday he uses shock effects sparingly and they therefore have maximum impact.

An interesting point raised by Tim Lucas in the accompanying commentary track is the surprising but apparently considerable influence of Disney’s Snow White on Italian horror in general an this film in particular.

The US Blu-Ray release comes from Kino. It really offers very little that a good DVD release couldn’t have offered. Picture quality is good but there is a little graininess at times. If you already own the movie on DVD I wouldn’t bother upgrading to this Blu-Ray edition. Extras are also sparse, the only one of importance being Tim Lucas’s commentary track. Lucas certainly knows Bava’s work well but I was slightly disappointed by the commentary track. It offers no great revelations about the movie. Perhaps I expected too much,

A great horror movie from a director whose name is synonymous with visual brilliance.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

After the spectacular success of The Guns of Navarone in 1961 it was safe to assume that more movies based on Alistair MacLean’s action-adventure novels would follow. And they did. None of them managed to achieve the same success, but Ice Station Zebra in 1968 tries hard.

A radio message has been received from a British civilian weather station in the Arctic, Drift Ice Station Zebra. The message is garbled but apparently there has been a fire or an explosion, or both. Either way the men of Ice Station Zebra are in big trouble. And there is a huge storm in the area, making it impossible for aircraft to reach the station to rescue the men. So the American nuclear submarine USS Tigerfish is dispatched from Scotland to rescue them.

To the surprise of the submarine’s captain, Commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson), he is to have a passenger aboard for this rescue mission. The passenger is a British civilian, a Mr Jones (Patrick McGoohan). The admiral who gives Ferraday his orders cannot give him any further information, other than the fact that there is something at stake here beyond a mission of mercy.

It seems safe to say that Mr Jones is a representative of some sort of British intelligence agency and that his name is not Mr Jones. Ferraday’s orders are that he is to do anything that Mr Jones asks him to do as long as it does not endanger the submarine or the crew. The wording of those orders will cause problems for both Ferraday and Mr Jones. Also included as passengers are a platoon of Marines. You don’t send Marines if the operation is a straightforward rescue mission.

Even more surprisingly, once the submarine is at sea Ferraday receives orders to pick up two more passengers. Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) is a Russian, but Ferrady is assured that he’s on the side of the free world. Mr Jones vouches for him. The other new passenger is a tough hardbitten Marine captain by the name of Anders (Jim Brown). Mr Jones is suspicious of Anders. Anders is suspicious of Jones and Vaslov. And Commander Ferraday is suspicious of all three.

Before they can carry out their somewhat mysterious mission they have to reach Ice Station Zebra, which entails a hazardous voyage beneath the Arctic ice, a voyage that will prove to have more dangers than Arctic ice. As you’d expect, the mission is not as straightforward as anybody expects. Even Mr Jones is taken by surprise by some of the plot turns.

The main problem with this movie is that it is too big. Too big in every department. It was filmed in Cinerama and on a big budget, with a big star, and with expensive special effects. And a very long running time of 148 minutes. Everything is on too big a scale, leading the audience to expect a very big movie. You’re led to anticipate more thrills and more action than the movie can deliver. This is not really an action-adventure movie in the sense that the term is generally understood, especially by modern audiences. Or even audiences of the 1960s - if they were expecting the non-stop thrills and action of a Bond movie they weren’t going to get them.

What we in fact have here is a modest spy thriller, a movie that relies on traditional spy movie-style suspense rather than large-scale spectacular action set-pieces. That’s not to say that it’s by any means a bad movie. It’s simply that it probably wasn’t worth spending quite so much money on. Director John Sturges made many movies in this and similar genres and he handles this assignment quite competently. His biggest problem is trying to keep the audience’s interest through 148 rather long minutes, and it’s a problem he is unable to solve with complete success.

Rock Hudson gives a low-key but reasonably convincing performance, although at the end of the film we don’t really know much more about what makes Commander Ferraday tick than we knew at the beginning. That’s more a fault of the script than of Hudson’s acting. The character is somewhat underwritten. Ernest Borgnine is much too hammy, and Jim Brown’s character is simply a stereotyped hardbitten Marine officer. Patrick McGoohan has the only really interesting role and luckily he makes the most of it.

The special effects are extremely variable, at times embarrassingly inept (especially the opening scenes of the satellite), at other times exceptionally good and very convincing. The first half of the movie, the voyage to the Arctic, is much stronger than the second half. Once they reach Ice Station Zebra they discover that there really isn’t quite enough plot to justify  so much effort.

The Region 4 DVD presents this movie in a beautiful 16x9 enhanced transfer which looks glorious.

Ice Station Zebra is, despite its flaws, an enjoyable enough movie. If you accept it as more of a low-key espionage drama than a straight-our action movie you should find it entertaining.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

'Gator Bait (1974)

'Gator Bait is a particularly grubby and nasty piece of 70s exploitation fare. It’s typically 70s, but not in a good way.

Redneck sheriff’s deputy Billy Boy (Clude Ventura) and his even dumber friend Ben Bracken are in their boat lying in wait for Desiree Thibodeau (Claudia Jennings). They intend to rape her. This proves to be a bad idea since Desiree is a lot smarter than they are, and it all goes badly wrong and ends in a shooting. Billy Boy, in a state of panic, runs back home to his daddy the sheriff and lays the blame for the shooting on Desiree.

Now the sheriff realises, to his considerable consternation, that he not only has to break the bad news to Ben’s father T. J. Bracken (Sam Gilman), he will also have to go into the very depths of the swamp to find Desiree.

Since Desiree knows the swamps better than anybody, and since she’s wild and dangerous at the best of times, it’s not an enticing prospect.

Sheriff Joe Bob (Bill Thurman), Billy Boy, T. J. and T. J.’s other two sons Pete and Leroy set off into the depths of the swamp. Leroy is a failed rapist, while Pete is an enthusiastic would-be rapist. He gets in some practice on his sister. This is not a very pleasant community.

Nobody knows exactly where Desiree lives with her brother and sister, except that it is very deep in the swamp lands. Finding her house proves to easier than expected, but this has disastrous and tragic consequences.

Soon afterwards the truth starts to dawn on the five men hunting Desiree that they’re no longer the hunters. It is now Desiree who is hunting them. She is a patient hunter. She intends that her revenge should be savage but slow.

The acting is mostly fairly basic. Most of the characters are repellant and I guess you could say the acting is effective since they come across as very repellant indeed. The exception to this is Desiree, and Claudia Jennings easily walks off with the acting honours. Jennings was a former Playboy Playmate of the Year who tried to convert her brief centrefold fame into an acting career. She made a series of low-budget movies before her tragic death in a car accident in 1979 at the age of 29. She was not a great actress but she was more than adequate for the roles she got, and she’s fairly convincing as the wild Cajun swamp girl.

Low-budget husband-and-wife film-making team Ferd and Beverly Sebastian were the people responsible for 'Gator Bait. They use the Louisiana locations quite skillfully and those locations are the movie’s biggest strengths. The various boat chase scenes are done fairly well. The script, by Beverly Sebastian, is as vicious as the characters.

Despite the title alligators play a minor role in the film. You actually have to feel sorry for the ‘gators, having neighbours like the Brackens. This is really a hicksploitation film, and contains just about every stereotype about rural communities that you could possibly imagine. Everyone is in-bred and everyone is dumb. Everyone is corrupt. The sheriff is fat, lazy and crooked. It’s the sort of representation of rural life that city-dwellers tend to enjoy.

It’s been released on a DVD-R by a small outfit called Panama Films. The transfer is fullframe and there’s a small amount of print damage. The picture quality and sound quality are acceptable enough for the modest price being asked.

'Gator Bait is a sleazy and rather unpleasant little movie. Those things could be forgiven, or at least tolerated, if it offered more in the way of entertainment value. As it is, it’s not really worth the effort unless you have fond memories of renting movies like this in the early days of VHS.