Sunday, 17 February 2019

Psycho III (1986)

By 1986 Anthony Perkins was facing up to the fact that if he wanted to get another starring role in a movie, and if he wanted a chance to direct (which he did), his only option was going to be another Psycho sequel. Which is why we have Psycho III.

There are two things that need to be said upfront about this movie. If you haven’t seen Psycho II you definitely won’t have the remotest idea what’s going on. And Psycho III contains major spoilers for Psycho II. So you absolutely must watch Psycho II first.

Which also means I’m going to have to be a bit vague at times about the plot outlines of the third film since I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling the second film. There are many references to the events of Psycho II which I’m not going to discuss and since they’re they’re the least satisfactory feature of the movie perhaps it’s just as well to ignore them.

The movie opens with a prologue which is an homage to a Hitchcock film, but it’s an homage to Vertigo rather than Psycho. It tells us some very disturbing things about a nun named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) and most of all it tells us why she isn’t a nun any more.

Norman Bates is back once again running the Bates Motel. He has been declared cured. Surprisingly enough the small local community has accepted him. Norman may have killed a whole bunch of people but apart from that he’s a nice enough guy and people feel sorry for him. However horrible his crimes may have been he has paid a very high price for them and he has shown considerable courage in attempting to take up his life again in the same community.

Now some disruptive elements have entered his life. Three people have arrived in the town. One is journalist Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell). One is a would-be rockstar named Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey). Duke gets a job as Norman’s assistant at the motel. The third and most unsettling is Maureen Coyle. What makes Maureen really unsettling to Norman is that she has her initials on her suitcase, M.C., which are of course Marion Crane’s initials. This not unnaturally upsets Norman a good deal.

You won’t be in the least surprised to hear that the Bates Motel is once again the scene of a series of horrific murders. Norman is of course suspected but the local sheriff is convinced that he is not the killer. The killings continue, while a strange emotional entanglement develops between Norman and Maureen.

The ending is disappointing, being just a bit too obvious.

Any Psycho sequel is going to have the problem that we already know about Norman and his mother. The subject of his mother can’t be ignored but it’s not easy to give it any real shock value. Psycho III solves this problem by putting much of the focus on Maureen Coyle. Maureen clearly has lots of issues. She is clearly, in her own way, just as crazy and confused and alienated from real life as Norman. And being a nun suddenly thrust into the everyday world she is obviously a woman with a less than relaxed attitude towards sex. In fact she’s as uncomfortable with that area of life as Norman.

What makes Maureen really interesting is that we have no idea what she’s going to do. Is she going to be just another victim? Is she going to start slicing and dicing people in Norman Bates style? Is she going to resolve her issues or keep spiralling downward? Is she going to send Norman totally insane again or is she going to help to redeem him?

She is also, like Norman, a person who seems to find impossible to escape her past.

There’s little point in saying that Anthony Perkins makes a good crazy person. We all know that. He does perhaps push things a bit too far at times. Roberta Maxwell plays the journalist Tracy as a woman with the morals of a rattlesnake and all the charm of an infected tooth. In other words, a typical journalist. The performance that really matters is Diana Scarwid’s. She has to make Maureen crazy and disconnected and generally weird and at the same time fascinating. She manages to do this fairly well. Jeff Fahey goes wildly over-the-top as Duane and adds appreciably to the movie’s high weirdness quotient. The Bates Motel is a real crazy person magnet in this film.

Of course this being the 80s Psycho III has a lot more overt gore than Hitchcock’s 1960 movie, and it has some gratuitous sex and nudity. These things were dictated by the commercial realities of the era and there’s nothing Perkins could have done about it. It’s also, naturally, widescreen and in colour. Again this was an unavoidable commercial reality.

In fact almost everything that is wrong with this film can be laid at the door of the studio. Perkins and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue wanted to make a movie more concerned with the tragic emotional consequences of the events but the studio wanted a slasher movie. Ironically the movie was a commercial failure, which tends to happen when studio execs get to call the shots.

While there are things wrong with it there are also a lot of things right with Psycho III. Perhaps the movie’s greatest asset was Anthony Perkins, not as star but as director. He really does a fine job. The atmosphere of insanity and general wrongness, and at times out-and-out weirdness, is very impressively achieved. And while Perkins didn’t want to do it as a slasher film he handles the grisly murders with a surprising amount of style. Any Psycho sequel will obviously have to reference the shower scene in Hitchcock’s movie. Psycho III actually does this quite cleverly and quite effectively, and quite surprisingly. The other very famous Psycho set-piece is also referenced, and equally effectively.

The Region 4 DVD that I watched is an old release with no extras. The letterboxed  transfer is acceptable but not great. There's now a loaded-with-extras Blu-Ray release I believe.

Psycho III is far from being a complete success but it’s much better than its reputation would suggest and it’s actually not bad at all. Recommended.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Death Trip (1967)

Death Trip (Kommissar X - Drei grüne Hunde) is one of the very successful series of seven Kommissar X europspy movies made between 1965 and 1971. Death Trip was a West German-Italian-French-Hungarian-Lebanese co-production!

It was shot partly on location in Istanbul and released in 1967.

The Kommissar X movies followed the adventures of American private eye Joe Walker (Tony Kendall) and New York cop Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) who were continually getting mixed up in spy capers. There’s never a plausible explanation for their involvement in the world of espionage but if you’re looking for things to have plausible explanations then the eurospy genre is probably not for you anyway.

This time Tom Rowland has been assigned to transport a million dollars’ worth of LSD to an American military base in Europe, LSD being supposedly seen as a key chemical weapon (and in fact the C.I.A. did have a murky involvement with LSD in the 60s). A gang called the Green Hounds wants to steal the LSD.

Naturally Joe will end up getting drugged with LSD. Naturally he will get mixed up with a series of glamorous women at least one of whom will be beautiful but evil. Naturally the non-evil girls will be kidnapped by the bad guys. Naturally there will be narrow escapes from certain death, and quite a few fistfights and quite a bit of gunplay.

Joe has the coöperation of the Turkish police but he’s under pressure from the U.S. military to retrieve the LSD no matter what the cost.

There’s a good chase over the rooftops in Istanbul, and there are some atmospheric dungeon scenes. There are also rats to be dealt with. Actual rats. Hundreds of them.

One of the major assets of the Kommissar X series is Tony Kendall. That’s not to say that Joe Walker is a well-rounded three-dimensional character. He isn’t. He’s a comic-book hero but he’s great fun and Kendall plays him with charm and panache. Walker is very similar in style to Lemmy Caution, the hero of a terrific series of French crime/spy thrillers like Dames Don’t Care. The darkly handsome Kendall (who was actually Italian) is physically poles apart from the gravel-voiced weatherbeaten Eddie Constantine of Lemmy Caution fame but Walker has the same sublime self-confidence, the same cheerful arrogance, the same keen interest in the female of the species and the same tendency to jump into a fight with both fists.

Tom Rowland is more of a straight arrow type and he makes a good foil for the impetuous maverick Walker.

There’s an interesting attempt to link the Green Hounds to events in the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century.

LSD doesn’t play as much of a röle as you might expect. It’s mostly used as a McGuffin. There are no attempts at elaborate acid-trip scenes. Which is just as well since eurospy movies are pretty psychedelic even without actual psychedelic drugs.

Istanbul was up until the 70s a favourite location for spy stories. It has that East meets West ambience, it’s exotic and it’s a very photogenic city. The Valley of a Thousand Hills is also pretty cool. The Turkish locations are used to great advantage.

Rudolf Zehetgruber wrote snd directed the movie and also plays an important supporting role. He does a pretty fair job in all three capacities.

The supporting cast is generally adequate. The girls were obviously cast mostly for their looks, but their looks are nothing to complain about.

The Sinister Cinema DVD-R offers a badly washed out print although it is mostly in the correct aspect ratio. I believe that most of the Kommissar X films have been released in Germany in much better editions although I’m not entirely sure if they include English subtitles or the English dubbed versions (some sources say that they do).

The English dubbing is reasonably well done.

Death Trip is a pretty good entry in the Kommissar X series and it’s a more than decent eurospy flick.

You might also be interested in my reviews of other Kommissar X films - Death Is Nimble, Death Is Quick (1966), So Darling, So Deadly (1966) and Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (1966).

Saturday, 29 December 2018

favourite cult movies of 2018

my favourite cult movies of 2018

Yes it’s time once again for making “best of” lists. I haven’t seen enough cult movies in the past year to do a proper top ten list so I’ve contented myself with a top half-dozen, rank by year of release not quality.

Here’s the list, with links to my reviews.

Yambaó - Cry of the Bewitched (Alfredo B. Crevenna, 1957)

The Monster That Challenged the World (Arnold Laven, 1957)

The Frozen Dead (Herbert J. Leder, 1966)

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

I'm going to give an honourable mention to The Time Travelers (Alexander Singer, 1976), an interesting TV-movie which was actually a pilot for a projected TV series that never eventuated.

Yes the list is mostly John Carpenter movies! That’s because my cult movie watching in the past year has been mostly limited to - John Carpenter movies.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Hypnotist (1957)

The Hypnotist (later re-released as Scotland Yard Dragnet) is a 1957 psychological thriller from Britain’s Merton Park Studios. Like most of the studio’s output it’s a low budget production and like most of their output it’s better than you might expect.

In this case it’s also a bit stranger than you might expect.

It starts with test pilot Val Neal (Paul Carpenter) almost being killed when a test flight goes wrong. Against all the odds he escapes with only very minor injuries and he quickly makes a full recovery. Except that it’s not quite a complete recovery. He has these attacks. He becomes very breathless and suffers agonising chest pains. Since there is absolutely nothing physically wrong with him it looks like it’s a case for the psychiatrists, and his fiancée Mary (Patricia Roc) manages to persuade a very eminent man in that field, Dr Francis Pelham (Roland Culver) to take Val on as a private patient.

The therapy seems to make little progress. Since as everyone knows all mental problems can be explained by a repressed childhood memory Mary decides to take a pro-active approach - instead of waiting for Dr Pelham to uncover this repressed memory she’ll do a bit of digging into Val’s past and maybe she’ll find the answer that way.

While she’s doing this Val has a little adventure. While under hypnosis he runs off and after wandering the streets, not even being able to remember his own name, he meets a rather charming young lady in a jazz club. The following morning he remembers his name and returns home.

So far the film seems to be an odd and slightly overwrought psychological melodrama but after nearly an hour it suddenly changes gears and the main plot, a murder mystery plot,  kicks in. The slow buildup could be seen as a flaw but I think it works. It’s a movie that leads us up the garden path and the sudden unexpected act of violence comes as a shock.

Movies from the 40s and 50s dealing with psychiatry and hypnosis are always fun. There’s the delightful child-like faith that people had in such things back then, and the way psychiatrists were regarded almost as magicians. This movie is a particularly good example of the psychiatry-as-magic genre. All you have to do is to find that one crucial memory from the patient’s childhood and he will be instantly cured. And hypnosis is incredibly powerful and you can’t fight against it.

The oddness in this movie doesn’t come from the plot (which is not dazzlingly original) but more from the delightfully sensationalistic and rather outrageous treatment of the hypnosis theme.

Roland Culver is marvellous as always, playing his role with a twinkle in his eyes. It’s a nicely judged performance - Dr Pelham seems like a dedicated and kindly doctor but can we be sure he is what he seems to be?

Paul Carpenter is quite effective as Val, playing him as mostly an easy-going likeable kind of guy but also as a guy who could certainly have some dark secrets and perhaps the potential to lose control completely. As is the case with Dr Pelham we’re uncertain whether to take Val at face value or not.

Writer-director Montgomery Tully was an artisan rather than an artist but his films, particularly in the B-movie crime genre, are usually solid and quite watchable.

Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. The black-and-white image looks great. Extras are pretty much non-existent - a trailer and a stills gallery (which is more than you usually get from Network).

The Hypnotist is perfectly enjoyable and the psychobabble adds extra entertainment value. Recommended.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Ace Drummond (serial, 1936)

Ace Drummond is a 1936 aviation adventure serial from Universal, and it’s one of the best of the early Universal serials.

This serial is based on Eddie Rickenbacker’s comic strip of the same name. Rickenbacker himself was a colourful and larger-than-life character. He was the highest scoring American air ace of the First World War, a racing car driver, the founder of an automobile manufacturing company and an airline executive as well as being a bitter enemy of President Franklin Roosevelt.

International Airways is trying to establish an international network of air services and of course Mongolia is the key to this. So they need to establish an air field there. They have suffered a series of disasters which appear to be the work of a master criminal known as the Dragon, the intention being presumably to close down the airline’s operations in Mongolia.

In desperation the directors of the airline have called on the services of the G-Man of the Air, the famous Ace Drummond. Drummond very narrowly escapes death on his way to Bai-Tal Field, the Mongolian headquarters of International Airways.

There's another mystery to be dealt with as well. Eminent archaeologist, Dr Trainor, who claimed to have discovered a mountain of jade, has disappeared. His daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has arrived in Mongolia to try to find some trace of her father.

Both Ace and Peggy suspect that the Dragon is behind Dr Trainor's kidnapping.

Singing cowboys were amazingly popular in 1930s Hollywood. Ace Drummond is a variation on the theme - he’s a singing aviator. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. I did get a little tired of hearing the one song over and over again.

John King as Drummond is an effective square-jawed hero while Jean Rogers as Peggy Trainor makes a fine heroine. Noah Beery Jr gives a scene-stealing performance as aircraft mechanic and part-time hero’s sidekick Jerry. Jerry could easily have been made into a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a sidekick who is resourceful and actually useful, and quite heroic in his own right.

Guy Bates Post gives a florid performance as the Grand Lama of the nearby monastery (where the monks are extremely hostile to the Foreign Devils of the Air). The monastery is not quite the haven of peace you might expect, given that it contains a room specifically designed for the purposes of torture.

There’s also a potentially annoying kid, the son of the airline president, but he turns out to be not as annoying as one might have feared.

The other notable cast member is Lon Chaney Jr as one of the henchman of the chief villain.

There’s no shortage of action in this serial, and the action sequences are imaginative and exciting. There are lots of aerial sequences and they’re pretty impressive.

The cliffhangers are mostly pretty good. As you might expect quite a few involve air crashes.

The identity of the chief villain, the Dragon, is reasonably well concealed. One interesting feature is the killing off of a heroic character, rather surprising in a serial.

This is a Universal serial so the production values are somewhat higher than you’d find in a contemporary Mascot serial. The sets are quite good, especially the monastery sets. There are some gadgets, the best by far being the use of the fans and prayer wheels and even water wheels as radio receivers for messages from the Dragon.

Ace Drummond is available on DVD from several sources. My copy was from, Alpha Video. Both the image quality and sound quality are quite good (by Alpha Video standards anyway).

Ace Drummond is a truly excellent serial. Highly recommended. There were quite a few other 1930s aviation-themed serials, such as The Mystery Squadron (which is also highly enjoyable).

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Return of Dr Fu Manchu (1930)

Paramount released three Fu Manchu movies in the early days of sound movies. All starred Warner Oland (who went on to even greater fame and notoriety as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu appeared in 1929, followed by The Return of Dr Fu Manchu in 1930 and Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. It is The Return of Dr Fu Manchu with which we are concerned at the moment.

It opens with a recap of the events of the first film. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu had offered an explanation for Fu Manchu’s hatred of European civilisation - his wife and child had been killed by white soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion (in which Fu Manchu had been firmly on the side of the European powers) and so his crusade against white civilisation is motivated entirely by personal revenge. This is totally at odds with the character of Fu Manchu as established in Sax Rohmer’s novels and in my view it cheapens and trivialises the character. In the books Fu Manchu is motivated by grander and nobler sentiments. He believes that either western civilisation must dominate the East, or that eastern civilisation must dominate the West and being Chinese he naturally hopes that eastern civilisation will triumph. He genuinely believes that he is fighting in the cause of a superior civilisation. Reducing him to a man bent on personal revenge, like a character in a cheap B-western, makes him far less interesting.

It also makes him less of a larger-than-life character and less of a super-villain, which is unfortunate. Everything about Fu Manchu should be on the grand scale, both his evil deeds and his acts of nobility. This is lost in these early film adaptations.

But I digress. The recap of the earlier film takes place during Fu Manchu’s funeral, attended by his old foe Inspector Nayland Smith. Since the movie is just beginning and Fu Manchu is the central character I don’t think any viewer is going to be the least bit surprised that with the funeral services over Dr Fu Manchu is revealed to the audience as being very much alive.

Nayland Smith’s close friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Jack Petrie is about to marry Lia Eltham, both these young people believing they are now free from the menace of Fu Manchu. But Fu Manchu is determined the wedding will not take place. Instead there will be a funeral, Jack Petrie’s funeral. Fu Manchu has set himself the goal of murdering all the British officers responsible for the deaths of his wife and son, and he intends to murder the son of those British officers as well. Dr Jack Petrie is the last name on his list.

The movie takes on some of the attributes of the Old Dark House genre, with the wedding party more or less under siege while Fu Manchu is lurking nearby preparing to strike.

Unfortunately it takes a long time before he does strike. This movie is much too slow. Nothing really happens at all in the first half hour.

Early talkies have a reputation for being static with too much dialogue and not enough action, mainly because of technical difficulties with the early sound technology. This film definitely has that dreaded static feel to it. Rowland V. Lee was usually a competent B-movie director so I would assume that the problems here were mostly due to those technological issues.

It does improve and the second half of the film features some interesting battles of will between Smith and Fu Manchu and between Petrie and Fu Manchu. It doesn’t matter who is stronger or braver or cleverer, what really matters is who has the greater will. There is a bit of action and at least some suspense.

Warner Oland was a fine actor and he makes Fu Manchu a living breathing character but he doesn’t quite the grandeur and the arrogance and the aura of genius to really capture the essence of the character. Of the many actors who have played the rôle the only one who really nailed it was Christopher Lee. Warner Oland isn’t terrible by any means but he just isn’t Fu Manchu.

O.P. Heggie is a very dull Nayland Smith. Neil Hamilton (best remembered as the Commissioner in Batman) is not bad as the young Dr Petrie. Jean Arthur doesn’t make much impact as Lia. William Austin provides some excruciatingly feeble and unfunny comic relief as Petrie’s best man.

A major weakness is that we don’t see enough of Fu Manchu himself, especially in the early stages. While I have reservations about Oland’s performance there’s no question that he’s the one actor here really worth watching.

When we finally see Fu Manchu in his lair things pick up a bit. It’s quite a good set, in fact very good, and does convey a kind of oriental mad scientist vibe.

The Return of Dr Fu Manchu is at best a partial success. After a very dull start it provides some entertainment value but it fails to capture the essential spirit of Sax Rohmer’s novels.  Hardcore Fu Manchu fans will probably want to see it anyway out of curiosity.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Whispering Shadow (serial, 1933)

The Whispering Shadow is a 1933 thirteen-part Mascot serial starring Bela Lugosi. It’s a crime thriller with some elements of science fiction and of the fantastic thrown in, and with a hint of the gothic as well.

The Empire Transport and Storage Company has carved out its own market niche. It’s a trucking company but with some very high-tech features. The trucks are in constant communication with the central warehouse by radio-phone. The system seems fool-proof but unfortunately in practice it’s proving to be worryingly vulnerable. Four Empire trucks have been hijacked recently with fatal results for the drivers involved. A sinister figure knows as the Whispering Shadow is believed to be behind the hijackings. There is no real explanation as to why those particular trucks were targeted.

When another trucks is attacked and the kid brother of chief dispatcher Jack Foster (Malcolm McGregor) is killed the company decides to get serious. They hire the celebrated detective Robert Raymond (Robert Warwick) to take over security.

There’s an extraordinary amount of plot packed into the first episode, not to mention several action set-pieces. Several intriguing characters are introduced - such as jewel thief Jasper Slade and magician Professor Strang (Bela Lugosi). There are cool gadgets. There’s a shadow that speaks. There’s a wax museum. There’s a prison breakout. There’s a full-scale attack on the company’s headquarters - by autogyro! There’s a death ray! There are at least half a dozen very suspicious characters. And it’s paced like a speeding locomotive.

It all has something to do with the most fabulous of all jewel collections, the jewels of the Tsar of Russia.

The pacing doesn’t flag at all. There’s no time wasted on extended dialogue scenes. Any exposition that needs to be done is done at a run. Then it’s time for more action.

The central mystery is the identity of the Whispering Shadow and that mystery is fairly well concealed. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s going to be Bela Lugosi - he did several serials and did not always play villains. There are several other very strong suspects. There’s some fairly good misdirection in this serial with all sorts of clues that point to different suspects.

The misdirection is not just to do with the Whispering Shadow’s identity. There seem to be a lot of people after those jewels, some of whom think they have legitimate claims and some of whom are obviously merely crooks. There are political agendas and it’s not clear precisely who is working for whom. The plot twists are actually reasonably nifty.

The Whispering Shadow is a diabolical criminal mastermind with access to terrifying and murderous technologies such as television. He is also a master of radio technology which is of course invaluable for killing one’s enemies at a distance. This particular serial is a celebration of technology's potential for mayhem!

There are too many flashbacks but you have to remember that you’re supposed to watch a serial like this over a period of twelve weeks, in which case the flashbacks would probably be quite useful. Modern viewers often make the mistake of watching an entire serial over a period of just three or four nights. It doesn’t really work. I try to watch no more than one episode per night and to take a few breaks so that I usually end up watching a twelve-episode serial over a period of maybe two-and-a-half weeks. It makes it a lot more fun.

The acting is very much in the hyper-active B-movie melodrama mode but that’s as it should be in a serial. Malcolm McGregor does make a pretty fair square-jawed action hero. Viva Tattersall overacts delightfully as Professor Strange’s daughter Vera.

The Alpha Video DVD release, on two discs, is unfortunately rather poor. Sound quality is adequate but image quality is definitely not good. On the other hand the other available versions are either public domain or grey market so there’s no reason to think they’d be any better. The Alpha Video release is watchable and if you’re a fan of serials it’s worth putting up with the less-than-stellar picture quality.

If you’re not a fan of serials than The Whispering Shadow is probably not the best place to start. But if you are a fan of serials you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.