Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

While their 1942 release The Mad Doctor of Market Street is a distinctly lesser entry in the Universal horror canon it does have Lionel Atwill in mad scientist mode and one or two other features that make it worth a look.

Several titles were considered when the project was being developed, including Terror of the Islands and Terror of the South Seas. This suggests it was initially conceived as a kind of tropical jungle romp. It ends up being a horror movie with not quite enough actual horror although the premise is promising enough (if not exactly startlingly original).

Ralph Benson (Lionel Atwill) is, like so many mad scientists in books and movies, trying to conquer death. He believes he can bring the dead back to life. The problem is that Benson is not the typical mad scientist, who usually starts out as a good man who ends up perverting his genius by pushing too far into dangerous areas of research. Right from the start he is a charlatan, a pseudoscientist with no real understanding of medical science. He might really believe he can restore life to the dead but that’s because he is not a real scientist. His research is a mishmash of garbled ideas he has stolen from others. He is not a good man who becomes evil through hubris or misfortune - he is dishonest, scheming and unscrupulous from the beginning. This is the most interesting thing about this movie and its main claim to originality.

There is a potential problem here. In most mad scientist movies we feel at least some sympathy for the mad scientist - we feel he could have been a great man if only he’d had slightly better judgment. We don’t feel any sympathy for Ralph Benson. He’s a fake, he’s dangerous and he is motivated purely by the lust for power and money (especially power). In this respect Lionel Atwill can be said to have made the right choices in his performance. Benson is a phony but he’s plausible and charming. Atwill’s performance is initially fairly restrained - he makes us feel that this is a man who could successfully fool people. As the story progresses Atwill’s performance becomes progressively more extreme (and delightfully so). As things start to go wrong we see Benson more and more as a psychopathic madman.

The story opens (moodily and stylishly) in San Francisco as an unfortunate and rather unwise young man, desperate for money, agrees to be used as a guinea pig in Benson’s experiments. The experiments go badly awry and Benson is soon on the run, wanted for murder.

He takes passage on a steamship, the S.S. Paradise, bound for New Zealand. The ship is destined never to reach its destination. It is shipwrecked and a small group of survivors find themselves on a remote Pacific Island. Among the survivors is Ralph Benson.

Benson soon convinces the natives he is a god. His scientific knowledge might be limited but he gets lucky and the natives believe he really can raise the dead. He continues his experiments, which is not good news for his fellow survivors, or for the natives. Since Benson’s science is no more than pseudoscience it’s inevitable that sooner or later he will stumble and once the natives start to doubt his godlike powers things are bound to get rather tricky for him. He is accepted as both god and absolute ruler of the island but his reign depends entirely on his ability to continue to perform miracles and of course miracles  turn out to be not so easy to perform.

There are enough good ideas here to make an excellent horror movie but by the early 1940s Universal’s horror films were tending more and more towards parody and light comedy so the ideas are not really developed sufficiently and the tone of the movie is too self-consciously comedic.

The casting is a problem. Atwill is excellent of course. The two romantic leads, Patricia (Claire Dodd) and Jim (Richard Davies), are adequate. Una Merkel was a fine comic actress but as Patricia’s Aunt Margaret she’s playing for pure comedy. She does this well enough but her performance pushes the movie too far in the direction of a lighthearted comic romp. This leaves Atwill as the only member of the cast actually trying to make a horror movie.

Despite these deficiencies there are some compensations. Joseph H. Lewis, later to become the darling of film critics for crucial entries in the film noir canon such as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, is the director. As always his approach is stylish and imaginative and as always Lewis demonstrates his ability to make a cheap B-movie look good. It also has to be said that even though Universal’s 1940s horror movies were mostly very inferior to their 1930s masterpieces the studio still had technicians with the skills to make these movies look great. Lewis gained the nickname Wagon-Wheel Joe for his penchant for shooting scenes through the spokes of wagon wheels in his early B westerns. It’s amusing to see him using some similar techniques here. 

There are a few quite effective and chilling images. The flower soaked in chloroform with which he subdues a native woman is a nicely creepy touch.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street is included in TCM’s five-movie Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set. The transfer is very good and there are at least a few token extras.

This is by no means a classic of the genre but Atwill’s performance, Lewis’s direction and the slightly unusual approach to the mad scientist stereotype are enough to make it worthwhile viewing. Recommended.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Asylum (1972)

Hammer’s great rival in the British horror movie market in the 60s and 70s was Amicus Productions. Amicus specialised in horror anthology films, all of which are worth seeing, but in my view the best of all their films was their 1972 release Asylum.

Asylum was written by Robert Bloch, best known as the author of Psycho but an excellent and versatile writer of fiction in various genres. The director was Roy Ward Baker, one of the top British directors of the period (and a man who did some notable horror movies for Hammer as well).

Asylum benefits from a particularly strong framing story. Young psychiatrist Dr Martin (Robert Powell) has applied for a position as a houseman at an insane asylum. On arrival he discovers that the director of the hospital is now a patient. The assistant director sets Dr Martin a challenge. He has to interview four patients, one of whom is the asylum’s former director. If Dr Martin can correctly identify which patient is the former director he gets the job. Each of the four patients then tells his or her story, these stories being the movie’s four segments.

In the first of these, Frozen Fear, Bonnie (Barbara Parkins) is a young American having an affair with a middle-aged Englishman, Walter (Richard Todd). Since Walter’s wife (Sylvia Sims) controls the money and refuses to give him a divorce they plot to kill her. This proves to be more difficult than they expected, which may or may not be because the wife is a student of voodoo. It’s a nicely macabre story, very much what you expect from Robert Bloch. Parkins was a competent actress. Richard Todd’s career may have been on the downslide but he was an excellent actor and he does well here.

In the second part, The Weird Tailor, Barry Morse plays a tailor name Bruno desperate for money who is delighted when the mysterious Smith (Peter Cushing) offers him a huge fee for a rather unusual suit. The suit is in fact very unusual indeed. Cushing is delightfully creepy and, as he so often did, he makes Smith a figure who is both terrifying and tragic. Barry Morse (a fine and underrated actor) is able to make Bruno almost pathetic but not quite and he does a fine job in emphasising Bruno’s desperation for money which warps his judgment.

The third segment, Lucy Comes to Stay, involves a young woman named Barbara (Charlotte Rampling). Barbara has been released from a mental hospital after a breakdown but her brother George (the delightfully smooth and urbane James Villiers) is not convinced that she has fully recovered. He employs a nurse to keep an eye on her. He had hoped that they had heard the last of Lucy (Britt Eckland) but his hopes are to be sadly disappointed. Rampling was not yet a star but she already has that slightly odd quality that always made her so interesting. Britt Eckland has rarely received much respect as an actress and that’s a trifle unfair. Her performance is more than competent.

The fourth segment (Mannikins of Horror) features the inimitable Herbert Lom as Byron, a man who believes he can transfer his mind into a toy robot. 

One of this film’s major asset is the stellar cast. Apart from those already mentioned there’s Geoffrey Bayldon as the hospital’s unctuous porter and Patrick Magee as the assistant director, Dr Rutherford. This is a movie in which everyone is so perfectly cast that it’s hard to pick a single standout performance. They’re all so good.

Asylum is an example of just how good a modestly budgeted movie can be with the right people involved. Director Roy Ward Baker, cinematographer Denys N. Coop, editor Peter Tanner and art director Tony Curtis were all professionals and the results are very good indeed. 

Camera tricks like Dutch angles generally need to be used judiciously but in this case, given the subject matter and the asylum setting, they’re entirely appropriate and are used to good effect. While much of the movie was made as Shepperton Studios there’s a considerable amount of location shooting as well. Amicus, like Hammer, were able to make cheap movies that looked more expensive than they were.

Amicus, very wisely, did not try to copy the Hammer style directly. Hammer were the masters of gothic horror so Amicus concentrated on contemporary chillers. This gives Amicus’s movies their own distinctive flavour.

Robert Bloch’s screenplay adapted four of his own earlier short stories. Lucy Comes to Stay was a story that he considered to be a kind of dry run for Psycho.

Dark Sky’s DVD presentation includes a brief but quite informative featurette on the history of Amicus Productions and an audio commentary with Roy Ward Baker and camera operator Neil Binney. Their recollections of the making of the film are still vivid and they are clearly (and with reason) quite proud of it. The transfer is good although not outstanding.

There’s no gore but there’s plenty of suspense and a nicely creepy atmosphere of crazed weirdness. You just don’t need gore in a horror movie if you know what you’re doing. Asylum is one of the most enjoyable of all British horror movies of this era. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Magician (1926)

The Magician is a 1926 horror melodrama based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name. It’s a movie that deserves to be better remembered - in fact it’s one of the best American horror movies of the silent era.

Maugham’s novel tells the story of magician Oliver Haddo. The character was based on Aleister Crowley. Maugham had met Crowley and taken an immediate dislike to the man. Crowley was of course a charlatan, although a rather interesting one. 

In the movie Haddo (played by Paul Wegener), an occultist, pseudo-scientist, hypnotist and would-be alchemist, is searching for a magical formula that will enable him to create life. Having found the formula all he needs is the heart blood of a pure maiden, and he finds a suitable victim in the person of sculptress Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry). Margaret is part of the Parisian artistic avant-garde and moving in such circles it’s perhaps not surprising that she should encounter a dangerous madman like Haddo.

Margaret is engaged to a brilliant young American surgeon, Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich), who has saved her from paralysis after a freak accident in her studio. One of her statues, a rather grotesque faun, fell on her and crushed her (in a wonderfully bizarre scene that sets the tone of the picture rather well). Oliver Haddo is determined to prevent this marriage and he uses his hypnotic gifts to persuade Margaret to marry him. Dr Burdon, along with Margaret’s guardian Dr Porhoet (Firmin Gémier), is equally determined to win her back and to save her from the grisly fate Haddo has in store for her.

Irish-born Rex Ingram was one of the great silent film directors. He was never particularly happy with the Hollywood approach to film-making and made many of his movies (most of which starred his wife Alice Terry) outside the US, although still under the MGM banner. Ingram’s career more or less ended with the introduction of talking pictures. 

The Magician features a good deal of location shooting and despite being a silent film it has a surprisingly modern feel to it. Those who avoid silent movies because of the exaggerated acting styles of the period need have no fears with this movie - the acting is extremely naturalistic. 

Even Paul Wegener as the villain resists the temptation to indulge in histrionic gestures and his character is all the scarier for his restraint. Wegener was most famous for his roles in classics of German Expressionist cinema such as The Golem. Alice Terry underplays as well, and does so very effectively.

It’s the visuals that are the heart of the film and Ingram proves himself to be a master in this department. He avoids the extremes of German Expressionism but this film has an abundance of superbly atmospheric and subtly sinister images. The one sequence in which Ingram really lets himself go is a hypnotic dream sequence but despite its excessiveness it works very well without becoming merely silly.

The Magician has all the themes that would soon become such familiar ingredients of the classic horror movie - a mad scientist villain who tries to play God in time-honoured Dr Frankenstein style, with the sort of laboratory that all self-respecting mad scientists should have, a wonderfully gothic sorcerer’s tower, a ghastly experiment carried out at the height of a raging thunderstorm, a damsel in distress, a noble hero determined to save said damsel, a malevolent dwarf assistant for the mad scientist,  and plenty of creepy gothic atmosphere. It’s also remarkably well-paced.

The sets are terrific and the art direction in general is magnificent.

Like so many silent movies this one makes good use of tinting, a technique that sadly went of fashion after the end of the silent era. 

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD features a pretty decent print. There’s some print damage but on the whole the image quality is clear and crisp. Considering the age of the film and the fact that it has not been subject to a full-scale restoration it has to be said that it looks exceptionally good.

The Magician is visually stunning and very entertaining. While it’s a genuine horror movie it’s pure melodrama in tone, which is fine by me. A true neglected masterpiece of silent cinema. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966)

Our Man in Marrakesh (also released under the title Bang! Bang! You're Dead!) is a low-key spy spoof from prolific producer Harry Alan Towers whose spectacularly uneven output   embraced just about every exploitation genre one can think of. This particular production can best be described as innocuous but fairly entertaining.

Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) is a spymaster anxiously awaiting a courier bringing two million dollars to buy some sensitive documents that he’s obtained by presumably rather nefarious methods. He knows the courier is one of six people catching a bus from Marrakesh but unfortunately he has no idea which one is the courier. Compounding the problem is that not one of the six people is what he appears to be.

Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) has come to Marrakesh to build a hotel but he’s masquerading as an oilman. Krya Stanovy (Senta Berger) has half a dozen explanations for her presence in Morocco, none of them true. Mr Fairbrother (Wilfred Hyde-White) claims to be selling bathroom fittings while Mr Lillywhite (John le Mesurier) claims to be a promoter of package tours.

Jessel and Krya are thrown together when a dead body is found in Jessel’s hotel room. They have the police after them and Casimir’s men as well, led by the sinister Jonquil (Klaus Kinski). After being chased over half of Morocco they encounter an unlikely chieftain of a band of Arab bandits - the Eton-educated Al Caid (Terry-Thomas).

The plot is not exactly strong on originality but it doesn’t really matter. Don Sharp’s typically energetic direction ensures that the action doesn’t flag. And there is quite a bit of action.

This movie’s biggest asset is the delightful cast. Tony Randall might be an unlikely hero for a spy movie but this is hardly a serious spy movie and in any case Andrew Jessel is the archetypal innocent caught up in a web of espionage that he finds utterly bewildering and Randall has no difficulty playing that sort of character. In fact he’s rather good.

Senta Berger manages to be slightly ditzy, glamorous, mysterious and appealing which is exactly what her rôle calls for. Herbert Lom oozes smooth sinister charm in the inimitable Herbert Lom manner. Klaus Kinski was always well cast as a colourful heavy while Margaret Lee is fun as Casimir’s dotty girlfriend. John le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White are wonderful as ever while Terry-Thomas sparkles as the old Etonian brigand leader. It’s a superb cast perfectly suited to the material.

While it was the Bond films that caused the 60s spy movie craze Our Man in Marrakesh is not, unlike the Derek Flint movies (such as Our Man Flint) or the Matt Helm movies (such as The Wrecking Crew), a spoof of the Bond movies. It’s a spoof of an earlier generation of spy movies - movies like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest - which typically featured an ordinary guy who gets mixed up in espionage very much against his will.

Don Sharp was a logical choice to direct. He could always get good results on a limited budget and he was more than competent when it came to action scenes (and this one includes a couple of pretty decent action set-pieces).

The location shooting in Morocco certainly paid off, giving the movie the ideal atmosphere of intrigue in exotic locales.

While this is a spoof it’s a gentle kind of spoof. Don’t expect the outlandishness of a Matt Helm movie. This is a much more low-key sort of movie. There’s plenty of amusement to be had but then it throws in a moderately serious spy movie climax with a bit of real excitement. 

This DVD is typical of Network’s releases - a good anamorphic transfer, no extras, and fairly reasonably priced.

Our Man in Marrakesh is the sort of movie that could never be made today. It’s innocent gently tongue-in-cheek good-natured fun with zero social comment and zero irony, absolutely no graphic violence and barely a hint of sex. It aims to do nothing more than deliver light-hearted entertainment and it succeeds admirably. It also has a simply wonderful cast. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Last Grenade (1970)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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