Saturday 28 August 2010

Man Made Monster (1941)

Man Made Monster is one of the five movies that comprise the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive, all of them being lesser-known Universal efforts from the 1940s.

With one or two exceptions I have a very low opinion of Universal’s 1940s horror output and the first two movies I watched from this set, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman, were very disappointing. I therefore approached Man Made Monster with a good deal of trepidation, but in fact it turned out to be reasonably enjoyable.

It has a fairly standard mad scientist plot but with a couple of interesting flourishes and some amusingly zany pseudo-science. Two scientists, one of them a kindly avuncular type with a highly developed sense of ethics and the other a compete raving madman, are working in the field of electro-biology. They are making little progress until one day they get a lucky break. A bus ploughs into a power pylon. Everyone aboard the bus dies instantly, victims of electrocution. Except for one guy. How did he manage to survive?

Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr) survived because he does a carnival sideshow act, as The Electric Man. Having been exposed to so much electricity he’s built up an immunity. Naturally the two scientists are eager to study this human marvel. Dr Rigas (played by Lionel Atwill so you know already that he’s the evil mad scientist) gets a bit carried away. He doses poor Dan with so much electricity that he becomes dependent on it.

Dr Rigas isn’t just interested in advancing science. He has plans for some social engineering as well. He believes that the less capable and less useful members of society can be transformed into willing slave workers by means of electricity. Of course Dr Rigas has to test whether electricity really is an effective form of mind control, so he orders Dan to kill. Poor Dan is now facing a murder charge but as it happens in this state the method of execution used is the electric chair. And Dan is now totally immune to electricity.

Lon Chaney Jr shambles through his role in his usual amiable way and it’s exactly the right approach. His easy-going performance makes Dan McCormick a likeable character and sets him him up effectively as the tragic unwitting villain. But this movie really belongs to Lionel Atwill. He chews the scenery in a most satisfactory manner. The other members of the cast are unmemorable but no-one is going to notice them anyway with Atwill in full flight.

This movie has one huge advantage over most of Universal’s horror films. It is almost entirely lacking in comic relief.

The mad scientist laboratory is pleasingly silly and campy and the special effects are enjoyably goofy and work quite well. The very low budget proves not to be a major problem.

Director George Waggner keeps the pacing very tight and this, combined with the welcome absence of comic relief noted earlier, means that this movie is never in danger of becoming boring. There’s also very little in the way of romantic sub-plots. The focus is very much on the one central plot line and the result is a very efficient and taut little movie that clocks in a fraction under one hour.

It is of course strictly a B-movie, but it achieves what it sets out to achieve. It knows it’s a horror movie and it doesn’t try to do anything else whatsoever. And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about this movie. It’s pure fun and I recommend it highly.

The DVD transfer is excellent, which also helps.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Endless Night (1972)

When you talk bout horror chances are that Agatha Christie is not the first author whose name springs to mind. Nonetheless, the 1972 movie version of her novel Endless Night can be considered a horror movie.

In fact it’s a psychological horror thriller, very much in the style of Hammer’s early 1960s psycho-thrillers such as Paranoiac.

Agatha Christie adaptations from this era were usually somewhat bloated efforts overloaded with superannuated stars. This one is quite different. The cast is quite interested. Hayley Mills (in one of her relatively rare appearances as an adult after her career started to falter), Hywel Bennett and Britt Ekland are the main stars. The supporting cast features some interesting faces including George Sanders in one of his last screen appearances (he had committed suicide by the time the movie was released) and Peter Bowles (a favourite actor of mine mostly familiar from his extensive TV work).

Hywel Bennett is Mike, a chauffeur who dreams of one day being wealthy enough to build a luxury house on a site he has fallen in love with called Gypsy’s Acres, and to fill it with beautiful works of art. While wandering about this place lost in his day-dreams he encounters a pretty young American named Ellie (Hayley Mills). The attraction is immediate. An obstacle arises to the romance when Mike discovers that Ellie is rich. Very rich indeed. In fact the 6th richest girl in the world. She manages to persuade him that it doesn’t matter, that true love is all that counts, and they marry.

Her family are not at all happy. The family lawyer (George Sanders) tries to buy him off. But Ellie pays for the building of Mike’s dream house, and he is able to get his eccentric architect friend to supervise the project. Another potential obstacle is Greta (Britt Ekland). She’s been acting as a kind of paid companion to Ellie but she seems to be regarded with suspicion by all and sundry and she and Mike do not hit it off.

Up to this point we have a romantic melodrama but of course things are about to change dramatically, tragically and unexpectedly.

This is extremely unusual for a Christie adaptation in that it relies mostly on character and mood rather than being plot-driven. The source novel was unusual in itself in not featuring any of Christie’s well-known fictional detectives. If you’re waiting for Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to show up to solve the case you will wait in vain.

This movie does not seem to be all that highly regarded. This may be because it doesn’t fit neatly into the crime genre and doesn’t have enough gore and violence to satisfy horror fans. In fact there is no gore whatsoever. I find out to be quite entertaining nonetheless. The pacing is a little slow in the first half but I think that’s a strength rather than a weakness. This is a movie where you need to get to know the characters.

Hayley Mills had been not merely a child star but possibly the best child actress of all time, but by the 70s her career had taken a major downturn. Watching her in this movie it’s difficult to understand why this happened. Her performance is extremely good (even if her American accent is a bit iffy). There aren’t really any standout performances, but there also aren’t any weak performances. Yes, even Britt Ekland is quite competent.

The PAL Region 2/Region 4 DVD release is disappointingly lacking in extras but the picture quality is fine.

With veteran director Sidney Gilliat at the helm, and with a score by Bernard Herrmann and what appears to have been a reasonably generous budget this is quite a classy production. It’s a low-key sort of film, but if you don’t set your expectations unrealistically high it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Dressage (1986)

Erotica is like any other genre. It can be done badly, or it can be done well. Dressage is an example of how the genre can be done very well indeed.

This 1986 French production also demonstrates that low-budget movies can look very classy indeed. It’s a period piece, which helps, but more importantly it’s a movie that appears to have been made by people who were actually interested in making a move.

The movie starts with a gathering of the Baron Plessis du Regard and his circle of decadent debauched hedonists. They plan a rather perverse game, to settle some scores with some enemies. Nathalie wants revenge on her father, who deserted her and her mother before she was born. Her revenge will be achieved by corrupting her father’s younger daughter Sophie.

The baron on the other hand wants to destroy a political enemy, M. Leroy-Murville. He will need one of the female members of his circle to help him, so he decides to choose the one who can prove herself to be the most depraved. This turns out to be Eliane.

Eliane gets herself a job as tutor to M. Leroy-Murville’s son Robert. She uses her very considerable sexual charms to tease both father and son until both are almost insane with frustrated desire.

Nathalie has obtained a post as tutor to her father’s daughter Sophie. Neither Sophie nor her father have any idea who Nathalie really is of course. Corrupting Sophie turns out to be surprisingly easy.

Both Nathalie and Eliane will find that things don’t work out quite the way they anticipated.

This is a movie in which the sex (which is really very tame) and the nudity (which is plentiful) cannot be described as gratuitous. The plot is all about sex. This is not just a string of sex scenes - it has a complex and carefully worked out plot. And it has actual characters.

I happen to be hopelessly in love with the 1930s so a movie set in the era already has a head start in my book. The sets and the costumes look great. And there’s no doubt that erotica in a period setting looks a whole lot more interesting than erotica in a modern setting. Gorgeous dresses, stockings and lacy underthings - you can’t really go wrong with such ingredients.

And it’s pretty well acted as well. Véronique Catanzaro as Nathalie and Cornélia Wilms as Eliane are extremely good.

It’s also a surprisingly good-natured movie. It’s not a tacky sex comedy but it is funny. There’s no violence at all. It’s fun, it’s classy, it’s stylish, it’s playfully naughty and it manages to be very sex without being in the least explicit. It ain't Citizen Kane, but it's highly entertaining.

Sadly the Naughty DVD release from Nucleus Films is not all that fantastic. The picture quality is somewhat dark and muddy. On the other hand it’s very cheap.

Sunday 22 August 2010

10 Rillington Place (1971)

10 Rillington Place is the story of real-life serial killer John Reginald Christie, who was hanged in 1953. That’s not a spoiler since we see Christie committing a murder within the first few minutes of the film.

In any case, when the film as made in 1970 audiences would certainly have known about the Christie case. The movie relies on the classic suspense technique of having the audience in on the secret while the characters in the film do not know what is going to happen next and have only partial knowledge of what has already happened.

The movie focuses on the most controversial of Christie’s murders, the one murder of which he may possibly have been innocent. In 1949 a young couple, Timothy and Beryl Evans, move into a flat in London. Christie and his wife are renting the downstairs flat. The Evans’ marriage is somewhat troubled. Timothy is illiterate, they have financial problems, and now there is a second baby on the way. They can barely afford one child. Beryl decides that getting rid of the baby is her only option, and Christie offers to help. It is a fateful decision.

The movie doesn’t really take advantage of the potentially most interesting aspect of the case, the doubts about the murders committed in 1949. The movie was based largely on Ludovic Kennedy’s book of the same title and Kennedy intended his book as an impassioned argument against the death penalty (this case actually did contribute to the abolition of capital punishment). To have focused on the doubts would have weakened his case. Whether it would have made a more interesting movie is more difficult to say. As it stands it’s still a very effective film.

There’s an overwhelming atmosphere of hopelessness and squalor, of people trapped in situations that are bad and can only get worse. The movie was shot partly in the actual locations where the murders took place, which makes a very creepy film even creepier.

Adding even further to the creepiness is Richard Attenborough’s performance as Christie. Lord Attenborough always did this kind of role supremely well and this is one of his finest achievements as an actor. John Hurt, as Timothy Evans, is almost as good. Judy Geeson as Beryl Evans could easily have been hopelessly overshadowed by these two powerhouse performances but to her credit she manages to be memorable and convincing. The incredibly high standard of acting is one of the film’s great strengths.

Director Richard Fleischer does a fine job as well, building the tension to almost unbearable levels at times.

While there’s no nudity the sexual nature of Christie’s crimes is emphasised very strongly, making this a very adult film. It’s a very unpleasant movie at times.

Considerable effort was clearly made to get the right period feel, and it pays off.

This is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to achieve, and it works like a well-oiled machine. Whatever reservations one might have about its historical accuracy, as a movie it’s almost impossible to fault.

Saturday 21 August 2010

The Last Wave (1977)

After the enormous success of Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975 Australian director Peter Weir’s next movie was eagerly anticipated. Sadly The Last Wave was a bitter disappointment. I’m not sure if I can describe in words just how disappointed I was by this movie.

It sums up pretty much everything I dislike about Australian movies from the late 70s onwards. It’s earnest, it’s politically correct, it’s self-consciously arty, it’s pretentious. It’s also very silly and the earnest tone just doesn’t work with the silly subject matter. And it’s deadly dull.

Richard Chamberlain is David Burton, a hotshot corporate lawyer who is persuaded to defend a group of Aboriginals accused of murdering another Aboriginal man. He becomes convinced that although there are no tribal Aboriginals living under traditional tribal law in Sydney, in fact that is exactly what they are dealing with - a matter of traditional beliefs and tribal law.

It’s also raining a lot. Lots of rain. Bad rain. Which is connected with the murder although I could never figure out how it was connected.

The court case goes ahead, and Burton continues to try to discover the secret behind the apparent murder. But these are sacred matters so nobody is anxious to tell him anything. Meanwhile it keeps raining.

Eventually we find Burton wandering about in Sydney’s sewerage system, and it’s still raining.

Richard Chamberlain does his best but the other actors are rather flat.

The movie is an attempt to cover similar ground to Picnic at Hanging Rock, playing with ideas of time and place not being what they appear to be on the surface, of mysteries that can never be adequately explained. Unfortunately filming mostly in Sydney didn’t really seem to suit Weir’s visual style and he fails to capture the necessary feeling of mystery, weirdness and the inherent inadequacy of our concepts of time. It’s all a bit too obvious this time around.

To say that this movie failed to engage me would be a colossal understatement. Non-Australians might enjoy this one more than I did, finding an exoticism in the subject matter that just isn’t there if you’re an Australian.

There are some bold ideas here, but where Picnic at Hanging Rock had the advantage of having Europeans confronted by a landscape that was impossibly alien to them that feeling is missing from The Last Wave. Sydney’s sewers just don’t have an atmosphere of strangeness and mystery.

After an extremely promising beginning Weir’s career continued to go mostly downhill from this point on, although his 1979 TV movie The Plumber was an enjoyable return to the black comedy of The Cars That Ate Paris. He ended up making some rather forgettable movies in the US (although The Mosquito Coast wasn't too bad).

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger was the third of the original Bond movies, but it marks the point there the Bond movie formula comes together. It’s very very different from the first two movies.

This is the movie that established most people’s idea of what a Bond movie was, and in fact what a spy movie was. Within the next few years there would be huge numbers of movies imitating this formula. It was not Dr No and From Russia with Love they would be imitating, it was Goldfinger. Some, like Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill, would copy the formula so exactly as to even copy the villain’s obsession with gold.

This movie also marked another substantial budget increase for the Bond movies. This allowed for some nice location shooting and some impressive sets, but also for the first time allowed enough money for gadgets, a commodity that would soon become a trademark of the Bond films. This movie introduces the most famous Bond gadget of them all, Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 with added extras courtesy of Q Branch, extras like machine guns and an ejector seat.

Goldfinger (played by the wonderful German actor Gert Fröbe) is man obsessed with gold, Not just for the wealth it represents, but for its own sake. And he owns a lot of gold. Enough to concern the Bank of England. And to persuade them to all in the British intelligence services to investigate Goldfinger’s activities, and his possible involvement in large-scale smuggling of gold. James Bond becomes involved, and when Goldfinger execute one of his employees (played by Shirley Eaton) by having her covered in gold paint the case becomes personal for Bond.

Goldfinger is one of the all-time classic movie diabolical criminal masterminds, and he has all the accessories that we expect such figures to have. He has his faithful and deadly manservant Odd Job, and he has plenty of glamorous women. Although we’re led to believe the women are mostly for show. And he has the sort of spectacular plans that we expect of such characters - in this case his target is nothing less than Fort Knox.

And of course this movie has Pussy Galore. Pussy Galore being played by Honor Blackman, who quit her starring role in the TV series The Avengers to take this role (a decision which in retrospect was almost certainly a serious error of judgment). Honor Blackman was nearly 40 and today would probably be considered too old to be a Bond Girl. Which just shows how degenerate our modern age really is. Honor Blackman is all class, and she’s rightly remembered as one of the iconic Bond Girls.

The enhanced budget allowed for elaborate stunts and action sequences and Guy Hamilton, taking over the reins a director from Terence Young who helmed the first two movies, makes the most of this. This movie may not have been as ground-breaking as far as editing and filming techniques go but Hamilton does a very competent job and the rest of the crew (mostly unchanged from the earlier films) by this time knew how to mount a very handsome production indeed.

This is the archetypal Bond movie, and the archetypal 1960s secret agent movie. Very few movies have spawned as many imitators as this one. As such it’s essential viewing, and it’s highly entertaining as well.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (1966)

Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill (Kommissar X - Jagd auf Unbekannt) is an Italo-German eurospy romp that sums up everything that fans of the eurospy genre love.

It has a completely mad plot. It has robot girls. It has kidnapped atomic physicists. It has a diabolical criminal mastermind. It has a secret island headquarters with plenty of silly gadgetry and a vault containing more gold than Fort Knox. And did I mention it has robot girls?

Joe Walker (Tony Kendall) is a suave private eye who spends a very large amount of his time chasing women. His pal Tom Rowland works for Interpol. He’s a guy who takes his police work seriously and he disapproves of Walker’s womanising, but they’re still buddies.

Now they find themselves working together on a puzzling case that involves a series of assassinations of very wealthy industrialists and the disappearance of nuclear physicists. When a third industrialist is murdered suspicion naturally rests on the lone survivor of a four-man cartel who had made a deal that, having no families, all their wealth would pass to whichever of them survived longest. But while the third tycoon certainly appeared to have been killed, his body was never found. Perhaps things are not quite as they seem.

From this point onwards the already confusing plot becomes more confusing, but bizarre and confusing plots are all part of the joy of eurospy movies. The important thing is that the trail leads Joe Walker to a secret island where he confronts the diabolical criminal mastermind, who has hatched a scheme to control the entire world economy. His island is packed with gold bullion, ingeniously protected by atomic radiation. To guard his hoard he has an army of beautiful women who have been turned into living robots. They look more like go-go dancers, but they mean business.

None if it makes much sense, but in the finest tradition of European cult cinema it’s all executed with a good deal of style and with a very definite sense of fun. Director Gianfranco Parolini made numerous similar movies as well as a string of spaghetti westerns. He may not have been a great director but despite an obviously limited budget he keeps the action moving along quickly enough that you don’t notice how silly the plot is. Well actually you do notice how silly the plot is, but you don’t really care.

The movie has lots of silly gadgetry like giant electro-magnets. The island headquarters of the villain was clearly done on a shoestring but still looks nifty enough. There are more than enough action sequences, and there are lots of beautiful women. A combination that was pretty much a guarantee of success in the 1960s.

Tony Kendall plays his role with tongue planted firmly in cheek so a character that could have been tiresome becomes fairly likeable. Brad Harris as Tom Rowland provides the necessary strait-laced play-it-by-the-book foil for the hero.

Retromedia have released this one as part of a three-movie one-disc set including all three Kommissar X movies. The transfer is pretty awful. It’s fullframe, the colours are wonky and washed-out, an it’s grainy and there’s lots of print damage. On the other hand you do get three movies at a fairly cheap price and if you’re a eurospy fan you know how difficult it is to find these sorts of movies so you’re not going to complain.

It’s silly goofy fun, it’s highly entertaining, and despite my reservations about the DVD quality it’s still highly recommended to eurospy fans. If you’re not a eurospy fan this is a pretty reasonable introduction to a very enjoyable genre.

Plus it has robot girls with 60s bouffant hairstyles. You can’t ask for more.

Friday 13 August 2010

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island of Lost Souls is a movie I’ve been lusting after for years. Now I’ve finally been able to to see it. And does it live up to my expectations? Oh yes.

With Charles Laughton playing Dr Moreau in an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau you really can’t go wrong. And this 1932 production was a Hollywood pre-code movie, and it shows. It’s delightfully perverse.

The story is familiar enough, and adheres reasonably closely to the novel. A shipwrecked passenger is cast ashore on a tiny uncharted island.The island is the private property of Dr Moreau. As we learn later Dr Moreau was forced to leave London after the nature of his medical experiments became a public scandal. Dr Moreau’s field is evolution (a hot subject in 1896 when the novel was published). He believes he can control and accelerate evolution.

The shipwrecked passenger, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), notices that the inhabitants of the island are rather strange. They seem very primitive indeed. But Dr Moreau is charming enough, and offers him the use of his schooner to complete his interrupted voyage Unfortunately the schooner meets with an unexpected accident and Parker finds himself stranded. He finds his surroundings increasingly disturbing, but there are compensations. Like the beautiful native girl Lota.

Lota is exotic but Parker can’t quite place her ethnic origins. And her child-like innocence seems a little excessive. But even though Parker has a girlfriend and he’s a decent sort of chap he can’t help but be attracted by Lota’s strange animal sexuality. He just doesn’t realise how animal her sexuality really is.

Dr Moreau is very much aware of the attraction between Parker and Lota, and it suits his purposes admirably. Apart from Moreau and his assistant there are no human inhabitants of Moreau’s island. They are all animals. But they are no longer merely animals. They have been scientifically modified by Moreau’s genius. They can walk and talk like humans. And they have an intermediary (played by Bela Lugosi) to remind them of the laws that Dr Moreau has taught them. And if they are tempted to stray from the Laws, he reminds them of the horrors of Dr Moreau’s laboratory (the House of Pain).

But the arrival of Parker has set in train events that will challenge Dr Moreau’s enclosed little world. Parker’s girlfriend is looking for him, and she will bring others.

Laughton is magnificent. He always enjoyed these larger-than-life roles and he really relished the opportunity of adding a very large dose of perversity to his performance. Richard Arlen is extremely good, and Bela Lugosi demonstrates his ability to add some depth to a monstrous role.

The movie was exceptionally controversial, partly because of the implication of bestiality (Parker is obviously sexually attracted to Lota and Lota is after all an animal, and Moreau clearly hopes for a mating between human and non-human). The movie also upset religious groups with its suggestion that science could usurp the role of God in creating life.

Island of Lost Souls is a worthy and intelligent adaptation of an important science fiction novel. It adds to the mix some very amusing elements of perverse sexuality which results in a strange and wicked but highly entertaining cocktail. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

From the Earth to the Moon (1958)

Jules Verne’s novels are among my few happy childhood memories and I admit I’ll watch just about any movie adaptation of those books. As it happens the 1958 film version of From the Earth to the Moon is particularly interesting.

The American Civil War has recently added, much to the disappointment of the members of a club of armaments manufacturers. Peace is not good for their profits. It’s especially disheartening for Victor Barbicane (Joseph Cotten) since he’s just invented a super-weapon, an explosive of unprecedented power. He calls it Power X. Now he has to convince the governments of the world to buy armaments utilising this explosive. He needs a publicity stunt so he comes up with the idea of a super-cannon that will shoot a projectile all the way to the surface of the Moon.

Barbicane has a rival in both the scientific and business spheres - Stuyvesant Nicholl (George Sanders). Nicholl has invented a super-armour that he hopes can with stand Power X, but his hopes are in vain. It seem that nothing can stop Barbicane, until he receives a visit from the President of the United States. Facing ruin, Barbicane finally realises he has one option - rather than firing high explosive at the Moon, he will fire a manned projectile. And he’ll be one of the crew members inside it. But he finds he needs the assistance of his old rival Nicholl.

What’s most interesting about this movie is that it says so much about the 1950s. The movie clearly links Power X with atomic power, and Barbicane’s plan to ensure that every government in the world will have Power X, thus making war impossible, is an obvious reference to the nuclear Balance of Terror. Barbicane and Nicholl represent opposing views on nuclear weapons and the Cold War. The movie also neatly encapsulates the characteristic 1950s mixed emotions about technology in general.

The ambiguous ending was rather bold for a 1950s American science fiction movie. Verne’s novel had an ambiguous ending as well but that’s because Verne intended a sequel (and in fact he published the sequel in 1870).

It’s fun seeing Joseph Cotten getting to play a character who is almost an action hero. On naturally expects George Sanders to be the villain but he isn’t, not really. He has what seem to him to be perfectly valid moral reasons for opposing Barbicane every step of the way. The movie does make an attempt to give both sides of the argument a hearing although we are presumably intended to favour the views of the hero Barbicane. Sanders might have been more fun as a stock villain but he does a reasonably job of making Nicholl an interesting character.

And of course any adaptation of a Verne novel is going to have a steampunk feel, even if that term was not to be coined until decades after this particular movie was made. And in fact this movie has a delightful steampunk vibe to it. I especially like the fact that the crew of the spacecraft don’t have to worry about weightlessness because they have a gyroscope. And they have what appears to be a primitive nuclear reactor, even though it was built in a laboratory lighted by candles and oil lamps. It’s a wonderful blend of Victorian and 1950s technology, all quite fanciful and all the more fun for that very reason.

All in all this is one of the more interesting 1950s Hollywood science fiction movies, and it’s in Technicolor and looks rather nifty.

This production also has historical interest as marking more or less the end of the road for RKO Radio Pictures.

Monday 9 August 2010

The Mad Executioners (1963)

While the best of the German Edgar Wallace krimis of the 60s were probably those made by Rialto Films several other companies also jumped onto the Edgar Wallace bandwagon. The most notable was Artur Brauner’s CCC company. The Mad Executioners (Der Henker von London) was a 1963 release by this company.

In common with many of the Wallace krimis this one is based on a novel by Wallace’s son Bryan Edgar Wallace. The plot does however borrow somewhat from his father’s most famous book, The Four Just Men. Once again we have a shadowy secret organisation dedicated to bringing to justice various criminals who have been allowed to walk free by the official justice system.

To make things more embarrassing this organisation has been carrying out executions using a hangman’s rope stolen from Scotland Yard’s crime museum, the famous Black Museum. Inspector Hillier has been assigned to the case. Scotland Yard has other problems on its hands - they are also dealing with a crazed sex murderer and their failure to catch the killer is resulting in a certain amount of public support for the activities of the unofficial Executioner of London.

It’s typical of the krimi genre in that it’s basically a murder mystery but treated in a rather over-the-top way ad with definite elements of horror and even science fiction. This one has a particularly creepy mad scientist.

There’s some nicely atmospheric blck-and-white cinematography, something that is a feature of all the early German krimis. Since they were all filmed in Germany but they’re supposed to be set in London the obvious answer to making the settings look more like London was - lots of fog and shadows! It still doesn’t look like London but it gives them the right mood.

The cast of the The Mad Executioners includes several faces that will be familiar to krimi fans, including Dieter Borsche and Wolfgang Preiss. The acting is solid.

Of course every krimi has to have comic relief. This time it’s provided by a reporter from a true crime magazine who fancies himself as an amateur detective. I’ve never been a fan of the concept of comic relief but the character is not too annoying.

Although it has its charms The Mad Executioners is not one of the better krimis. The two separate sub-plots are combined in a slightly clunky and obvious way and the pacing is a little off. But even a lesser krimi is still great fun and this one is definitely worth a watch. And there are some nice visual moments.

The best thing about the Retromedia DVD is that it also includes The Fellowship of the Frog. This was the movie that started the krimi boom in Germany and it’s a terrific little move. The transfers of both films are at best adequate and unfortunately they’re both dubbed but it’s fairly cheap and it’s still very good value.

If you’re a krimi fan the inclusion of The Fellowship of the Frog makes this a must-buy.

Saturday 7 August 2010

From Russia with Love (1963)

I’m continuing with my project of re-watching all the 1960s James Bond movies. It's becoming a sort of Bond blogathon. The second of these movies, From Russia with Love, is something of an oddity.

While the first movie, Dr No, was a kind of transitional stage between the spy movies of the previous eras and the classic 1960s over-the-top spy romps with with the James Bond franchise is usually associated, this is even more true of From Russia with Love. Until the last 15 minutes or so this is quite an old-fashioned movie, very much in the style of the classic British suspense thrillers of the 40s and 50s. Having much of the action set on a train links it even more closely with an earlier style of spy thriller.

None of which is intended as a criticism. This is an excellent movie. Surprisingly perhaps it follows Ian Fleming’s novel fairly closely. The one major change is that in the novel Bond is up against the (real-life) Russian counter-intelligence agency SMERSH while the movie has the (mythical) SPECTRE organisation playing off the British and SMERSH against each other. This makes virtually no difference to the story and the only reason for it would appear to be to provide a stronger link with the Bond movies to come (it already being obvious that there were going to be more movies in this series).

A junior Russian cypher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Istanbul, the beautiful Tatiana, wishes to defect, her story being that she has seen Bond’s file and has fallen in love with him. And she is offering a top secret Russian coding machine to sweeten the deal. Bond flies off to Istanbul. Working with the head of British intelligence in Turkey Bond makes contact with Tatiana, not knowing that a renegade British assassin (played quite chillingly by Robert Shaw) is stalking him. Bond and Tatiana flee Istanbul by train but they will have to avoid the attentions of both SPECTRE and SMERSH.

This movie had a considerably bigger budget than its predecessor, and was destined to be an bigger hit. Terence Young was again in the director’s chair and again does a great job. Large parts of the movie were shot on location in Istanbul, adding the necessary touch of exoticism.

Sean Connery by this time had already made the role of Bond his own. Newcomer Daniella Bianchi provides the obligatory glamour as Tatiana. The most interesting member of the supporting cast is famed German singer Lotte Lenya as Tatiana’s psychopathic boss Rosa Klebb.

Connery’s version of Bond is much more self-confident than Fleming’s original. The novel (one of the best of the Bond series) is notable for the number of mistakes Bond makes, and for his own realisation of his errors and the price that others may have to pay because of them. But spies who were beset by self-doubts had been fairly common in earlier spy movies (such as Ashenden in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent) and so making Bond a more arrogant and more large-than-life figure in the movies was probably an understandable decision. The emphasis in the movies was to be on action and adventure.

After this production the Bond movies were to become much more tongue-in-cheek and much more reliant on spectacular action sequences and high-tech gadgetry. From Russia with Love remains a classic Cold War spy thriller with links to both the spy movies of the past and those of the future. But it’s certainly no less enjoyable for that.

The Joys of Jezebel (1970)

The Joys of Jezebel is part of a two-movie set of devilish sexploitation treats from Something Weird Video. This one is sexploitation with a biblical slant!

I have to admit I’m fairly vague on biblical stuff but I suspect they weren’t too obsessed with sticking closely to the source material. Be that as it may Jezebel is a character with obvious possibilities for this sort of movie.

The lady in question is deceased and she’s now in Hell. And what do people do in Hell? Well apparently they have sex a lot. Lucifer is keen to get Jezebel into the sack but she’s playing hard to get, until Lucifer comes up with a tempting offer. She can return to the land of the living for a while if she agrees to bring Rachel back to Hell with her. Rachel is a virgin, a commodity evidently in short supply in the underworld. But Jezebel’s body will remain in Hell. In fact she’ll switch bodies with Rachel.

Rachel is fairly upset at the time since she being forced to marry Jeremiah, as part of a deal cooked up by her sister Ruth and Joshua. Joshua needs soldiers for his army, and Jeremiah will supply them in exchange for Rachel. Jezebel’s taking over Rachel’s body causes some difficulties, since when Jeremiah decides to take Rachel to his bed before their wedding night he doesn’t realise it’s really Jezebel, and Jezebel is very obviously no virgin. Meanwhile Jezebel has concealed Rachel somewhere in Hell, and Lucifer is desperately searching for her.

We might some of the varied inhabitants of Hell. Including King Solomon, who is accompanied by some guys with donkey heads. He seems to like it in Hell since he gets to make out with a sexy go-go dancer. She assures him that he’s much better than his donkey-men.

Legendary sexploitation producer David Friedman had made the interesting discovery a few years earlier that if you happened to be based in California you could make costume pictures for almost nothing. The costumes from historical epics made by the major studios were sold off by them and for a very small outlay you could get hold of a whole movie’s worth of top-class costumes. That was the discovery that triggered off his series of historical skin-flicks, starting with The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill. They were made in colour, they looked marvellous, and they were fun to make. And they made a nice change of pace from the “roughies” that had dominated the sexploitation market in the mid-60s. They looked bright and cheerful.

This one follows the standard Friedman formula - lots of nudity and lots of jokes. The lameness of the jokes adds to the charm.

Christopher Stone as Lucifer and Christine Murray as Jezebel are passable actors. Dixie Donovan as Rachel is atrocious, but she’s atrocious in the right sort of amusing way.

Director Peter Perry was inspired to get a bit creative with this one. The lighting and the use of colour gels gives it a rather cool look, with scenes alternately bathed in red light or blue light. And the sets are better than you’d expect. So overall it looks rather good, and that’s its strongest point. Apart from a considerable number of naked ladies.

Something Weird’s DVD looks pretty good as well. The colours are nice and vibrant.

As long as you accept it for what it is it’s generally good fun.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Dr No (1962)

It might be a bit of a stretch to consider a James Bond movie as a cult movie. But while the Bond movies were mainstream hits they did have an enormous influence on cult movies. You could argue that they spawned an entire genre of cult movies. And the Sean Connery Bond films have built up a cult following in the years since their release. And it was years since I’d seen the first of the Bond movies, Dr No.

The other reason that impelled me to sit down and watch this movie is that I seem to have been drawn into a surprising number of online discussions recently on the subject of Bond, both the movies and Ian Fleming’s original novels. I recently read one of the novel and was quite surprised by it - darker than I’d anticipated, and Bond is a more complex character than I’d expected as well.

I can’t imagine there are too many people who are unfamiliar with this movie so I’ll keep the plot synopsis as brief as possible. The US space program is under threat because someone is knocking their rocket launches of-course with a powerful radio beam, originating somewhere in the Caribbean. And at the same time a British secret agent in Jamaica has vanished. So the British send their top agent, this Bond chap, to investigate the disappearance and to help the Americans find the source of the troublesome radio interference.

There’s a mad scientist/diabolical criminal mastermind, there’s lots of action, and there are lots of attractive women. Most of whom seem to end up in Bond’s bed.

Dr No was in fact a fairly low budget movie. Although Fleming’s novels had been big sellers no-one really knew if they’d translate into box-office hits. And the two stars, Sean Connery and Ursula Andress, were more or less unknown. So United Artists decided to err on the side of caution and keep a tight rein on the budget.

Given these constraints the achievements of director Terence Young and his crew are even more impressive. Dr No was a dramatic departure from any previous spy movie - faster moving, with more action, and more sexiness, and a definite 60s vibe. Right from the start the superb opening titles sequence signals that this is going to be and exciting up-to-the-minute film. The editing is much faster and more adventurous than was the norm in 1962. There’s plenty of location shooting and there are exotic locations and (in spite of the small budget) spectacular sets.

And almost 50 years later it still delivers the goods. In fact it seems considerably fresher and more dynamic than the 2006 Casino Royale. And of course it has Connery. He’s not quite the Bond of the books but who cares? Connery is Bond. Accept no substitutes.

There’s also Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean like Botticeli’s Venus, one of the great iconic scenes in cult movie history. As Honeychile Ryder she actually has very little to do and all her dialogue was redubbed by another actress. It doesn’t matter. If walking out of the sea had been the only thing she did in the whole movie it would still have made her a star.

There’s also Jack Lord (later of Hawaii Five-O fame) as CIA Agent Felix Leiter. Joseph Wiseman is a good villain, maybe not as good as some of the great Bond villains like Telly Savalas but still pretty good.

And Dr No has calypso music! What more could you want? The Bond series really hit the ground running with this movie. It’s all great stylish fun.

The DVD includes a pretty good commentary track featuring most of the surviving cast and crew.