Monday 27 February 2012

The Love Machine (1971)

The Love Machine was based on Jacqueline Susann’s third and final novel. Her books are authentic trash masterpieces which I highly recommend and the film captures their glamorous sleazy atmosphere perfectly.

Robin Stone (John Phillip Law) is a handsome young local newscaster determined to reach the top in the world of network television. Greg Austin (Robert Ryan) runs the IBC television network and when his wife Judith (Dyan Cannon) assures him that women will swoon over the young newsreader he decides to take a chance and promotes Stone not only to the position of anchor of the network’s national news but also head of the entire news division.

This proves to be both a stroke of genius and a fatal error. Pretty soon Stone is virtually running the network and when Greg Austin has a near-fatal heart attack Stone finds himself really running the network. His sudden elevation to the pinnacle of success seems to be largely due to the influence of Judith Austin with whom Stone is having an affair. When Greg Austin is finally sufficiently recovered to take back the reins of power he finds that this will not be as easy as he thought. Robin Stone has no intention of relinquishing his position and (unfortunately for Greg Austin) he’s been so successful that firing him is almost impossible.

Stone’s position does have one major weakness. He has been as ruthless in his pursuit of women as in his pursuit of power and his habit of quickly discarding lovers has made him many enemies. When he tries to give Judith Austin the brush-off he discovers that the boss’s wife doesn’t take kindly to such treatment. And Judith Austin is not a woman to make an enemy of. Stone’s violent out-of-control behaviour towards women will also prove to be a factor undermining his apparently secure position.

The film covers similar territory to the over-praised Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. While critics gushed over Network they had nothing but scorn for The Love Machine but the latter is in some ways more effective, linking sleazy business practices and the media’s contempt for its audience to the general atmosphere of moral squalor of the television-movie-media world and to the moral collapse of the 70s. The message seems to be that if your personal moral code is that of an alley cat you probably won’t behave any better in your professional life.

I can’t say that I disagree. Certainly the movie is effective in demonstrating that Robin Stone treats the viewers of the mythical IBC network and his colleagues the same way he treats his women.

While it’s often dismissed as pure camp The Love Machine has much in common with the glossy 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. The look and the style of the movie represent Sirk updated to the 70s.

John Phillip Law’ performance was criticised as being colourless and wooden but in fact it’s right on target. Robin Stone is the perfect celebrity and the perfect media manipulator - he believes in nothing, he merely reflects whatever his audience wants him to be. He’s a mirror for other people’s narcissism.

Robert Ryan is excellent. Greg Austin is really just an older and less crude version of Robin Stone. He’s a step on the evolutionary path that eventually produced Stone. David Hemmings is impressive as the homosexual fashion photographer who is the closest thing Stone has ever had to a friend. He’s a cynical opportunist, but with Stone’s cruelty. Jodi Wexler is also quite good as fashion model Amanda, one of the many women Stone beds and then discards. She has made the fatal mistake of thinking that free love has something to do with love.

The movie has glamour and sleaze but the most overwhelming characteristic of the world it describes is its complete nullity - these are people who live in a moral and intellectual vacuum and any contact with real life is fatal to them.

While it lacks the over-the-top high camp magic of Valley of the Dolls it’s essential viewing for lovers of sparkling trash.

Friday 24 February 2012

Red Blood, Yellow Gold (1967)

Red Blood, Yellow Gold (Professionisti per un massacro, Professionals for a Massacre) is a fairly routine but still entertaining 1967 spaghetti western.

The basic plot idea is well-worn but there are enough twists to keep it reasonably interesting.

Three Confederate soldiers do a deal to sell Confederate arms to the Union but the Yankees find themselves double-crossed. Everybody in this movie gets double-crossed. Anyway their defence that their treason doesn’t count because they blew up the Union soldiers involved afterwards doesn’t help them and they are sentenced to be executed. They are reprieved at the last moment when the Confederate commander realises he can make use of these three resourceful thieves. So they’re sent on a sort of Dirty Dozen mission with the promise they will gain their freedom if it succeeds.

They have to track down a wagonload of gold that’s been stolen from the Confederacy by one of its own officers, Major Lloyd (who proves to be a very nasty piece of work). They’ll get a bonus if they bring back Major Lloyd’s head. Several plot twists later the gold has fallen into the hand of a cut-throat family of Mexican bandits. Everyone wants the gold and there will be a lot of corpses before this is over.

The three thieves are Chattanooga Jim (Edd Byrnes), Fidel Ramirez (George Martin) and defrocked priest and dynamite enthusiast Steel Downey (George Hilton). The acting is passable enough and Hilton is pretty good. Gérard Herter as Major Lloyd makes a suitably menacing and mendacious villain.

There are plenty of spaghetti western clichés in this one. There’s a Gatling Gun which serves no plot purpose except that Gatling Guns are cool so this movie has one. There are coffins. There are explosions. And then more explosions. Thousands of rounds of ammunition are expended.

Technically this movie is nothing special but the action moves along at a brisk pace. Director Nando Cicero does a competent job and while he does nothing to put any kind of personal stamp on the film he does understand the basic principles of the spaghetti western - if you’re not sure what should happen next blow something up or have a fist fight start for no reason at all.

This is a spaghetti western that plays things with tongue planted firmly in cheek. You don’t want to think too much about this one. It’s not going to tell you anything profound about the human condition so if you’re looking for art you’d best look elsewhere.

It’s extremely violent but the violence is not graphic at all by spaghetti western standards. The version I saw was presumably uncut or fairly close to it judging by the running time although I certainly can’t swear to it.

I picked up the DVD on a bargain table and apart from the fact that it’s all-region I can’t tell you anything about it. There’s no indication on the disc or the case of a company name. That’s not a good sign but at least it’s an acceptable print and in the correct aspect ratio. And it was cheap!

This is at best an average example of its genre but if you like mindless fun with machine-guns and dynamite (and what right-thinking person doesn’t) then there’s no reason you won’t enjoy this picture.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Assassination in Rome (1965)

Assassination in Rome was released on DVD by Dark Sky paired with another eurospy thriller, Espionage in Tangiers, in one of their drive-in double-feature releases.

Espionage in Tangiers is not too bad but I’m afraid that Assassination in Rome will be a bit of a disappointment for eurospy fans. This Italian-Soanish-French co-production is more a straight crime thriller with a bit of international intrigue thrown in but it doesn’t have the engaging silliness of the better eurospy flicks.

Hugh O’Brian is an American newspaper reporter in Rome who gets involved in the case of a missing American engineer. The engineer’s wife (Cyd Charisse) is an old flame of the reporter’s. There is stolen microfilm hidden in the sole of a shoe, and a couple of small-time thieves have found the shoe but don’t know what it contains.

There are no gadgets, no stunts and there’s virtually no action. That means the movie has to function mostly as a straightforward crime movie but the characters are insufficiently developed for it to hold much interest.

That’s not to say it’s a truly bad movie. It’s just a bit too pedestrian.

Director Silvio Amadio went on to make a couple of giallos but he shows little sign here of any great mastery of visual style.

The romantic triangle fails to engage us because there’s little chemistry between the two leads. Hugh O’Brian does the bare minimum required to earn his pay cheque.

Cyd Charisse does make a real effort and she’s the best thing in the movie. She certainly adds some class. Surprisingly she made several movies in this genre and she’s extremely good as a glamorous villainess in the underrated 1967 Maroc 7. In this film however she isn’t given much of an opportunity to show what she could do.

The movie is presented in the correct aspect ratio but it’s not 16x9 enhanced and the print isn’t fantastic. The double feature DVD is worth a look if you can pick it up cheaply and you’re a hardcore eurospy buff but really Assassination in Rome is only for completists, or perhaps for serious Cyd Charisse fans.

Monday 20 February 2012

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

The Creature Walks Among Us was the third of Universal’s gill-man movies, a series that started so promisingly with The Creature From the Black Lagoon in 1954 and then went downhill fast.

There were quite a few 50s sci-fi/horror movies where the monster turns out to be not entirely evil, or not entirely to blame, but there are none with quite such a sympathetic monster as The Creature From the Black Lagoon. That element remains in the sequels. The big problem with The Creature Walks Among Us is that very little of anything happens. There’s not even plot to sustain a 60-minute movie, and it runs for nearly 80 minutes.

A expedition sets out for the Florida Everglades to find the famous gill-man. It’s led by Dr William Barton (Jeff Morrow). Perhaps rather unwisely he agrees (reluctantly) to allow his wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) to accompany him. Their marriage is not going well and it’s soon obvious that one of the other expedition members is intending to make a play for her. This domestic drama occupies more of the film’s running time than the monster.

The monster is captured of course, but he’s been badly burned. His gills have been destroyed. The scientists now make a lucky discovery - the creature has lungs as well. If they can get his lungs working they can save him. What they don’t realise is that once he starts using his lungs he will start losing all his aquatic features and mutate into a land creature! Yes, it’s very silly, but the science will get even sillier. We are treated to some truly extraordinary scientific nonsense. We are informed that no new type of living creature has appeared on Earth for 400 million years. We also learn that if we can increase the red corpuscle count that will automatically change the creature’s genetics.

This type of ludicrous technobabble is the reason I watch science fiction movies! For me this is one of the movie’s saving graces.

Of course once the creature has completed its mutation into a land creature a problem arises since it can no longer survive in its original aquatic environment.

The scientists spent a great deal of time debating whether nature or nurture is the reason for the creature’s savagery, although it really isn’t particularly savage. It seems to be adapting fairly well to captivity. While the creature is doing OK, that domestic drama mentioned earlier is starting to get out of hand. The creature will become the unwitting victim, caught up in Dr Barton’s increasingly desperate attempts to hold on to a wife who clearly wants out.

The special effects and the makeup effects are good and the underwater sequences are impressive (although some are in fact out-takes from the first movie).

John Sherwood as director is competent if uninspired. The acting is reasonably good.

The problem is the script and the lack of action. There’s virtually no action at all until we’re almost 40 minutes into the movie. There are some decent ideas but they’re not sufficiently developed. The result is a movie that is just a little too dull.

The final scene however almost redeems the movie.

Universal’s DVD presentation is faultless and includes a commentary track.

Saturday 18 February 2012

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

I saw Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars many years ago. Seeing it again I found it it to be more impressive than I’d remembered in some ways, and less impressive in others.

The plot was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Kurosawa in fact sued the producers and in the settlement was given the Asian rights to the movie. As a result he made more money out of Sergio Leone’s movie than he made out of any of his own. The producers of A Fistful of Dollars probably should have fought the case more energetically since the resemblances are mostly superficial. Leone certainly got the idea from Kurosawa’s movie but the end result was a very different movie.

A mysterious stranger rides into a town on the US-Mexican border. The town is totally lawless and is dominated by two rival gangs, the Rojos (who deal in liquor) and the Baxters (who deal in guns). The stranger, the famous Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), sets about playing both sides off against each other and enriching himself in the process.

Much bloodshed and mayhem ensues. By the end of the movie the coffin-maker, the bartender and the bell-ringer are pretty much the only ones left alive in the town of San Miguel.

Interestingly enough this wasn’t the first Italian western. There had been a couple of dozen Italian westerns made in the early 60s. They had been more or less straight copies of the style of American westerns. There had also been a string of German westerns, successful in Europe at the time but now entirely forgotten. A Fistful of Dollars became an international hit by breaking the mould and going its own way stylistically. In doing so it established the template for the spaghetti western genre. It has most of what would become the standard tropes of the spaghetti western - coffins, machine-guns, large amounts of very graphic violence, moral nihilism and extreme style.

Equally interestingly Clint Eastwood wasn’t the first choice for the lead role. He wasn’t even the fourth choice. Charles Bronson and James Coburn were among the actors who turned the role down or anted too much money. Eastwood got the part because he was cheap. It proved to be a stroke of good fortune for both Leone and Eastwood. Eastwood provided most of his own wardrobe and had a considerable influence on the way the central character was portrayed, most notably by arguing that he should have a lot fewer lines. So that whole image of the mysterious spaghetti western hero who has very little to say was as much Eastwood’s creation as Leone’s. Eastwood felt he needed to be much more enigmatic that he was in the original script.

Eastwood’s performance holds up exceptionally well. He redefined the western hero.

Stylistically the movie is a triumph in spite of the absurdly low budget. Leone and his director of photography, Massimo Dallamano, make great use of the Spanish locations. The visuals are superbly integrated with the sound design and the music of Ennio Morricone. Leone was probably the first director to realise the potential of post-dubbing to enhance action movies - you can make a pistol shot sound like a cannon!

While it’s often been lauded as the first of a new breed of adult westerns it is in fact the first of a new breed of adolescent westerns. It reflects a rebellious teenager’s view of the world. I happen to love spaghetti westerns but I certainly don’t regard them as being adult westerns in the sense that John Ford’s The Searchers is an adult western. The idea of the all-pervasiveness of corruption and the complete absence of any kind of moral compass might have been refreshingly different at the time but they quickly became clichés.

These are perhaps minor quibbles. This movie is all about style and the stye still stands up after nearly half a century. The spaghetti western did to a large extent save the western. That the western survived as a genre in American movies into the 21st century is largely due to Clint Eastwood, and to say that Eastwood was influenced by Leone would be a understatement of epic proportions. Eastwood’s first great western as a director, High Plains Drifter, is pure spaghetti western.

The Australian Blu-Ray release looks terrific and comes loaded with extras including a very informative commentary track by Sir Christopher Frayling. Among the many interesting snippets he gives us is that The Man With No Name did have a name. His name is Joe. The Man With No Name idea was thought up later by the American distributors and apparently the mention of his name was deleted from some prints.

Thursday 16 February 2012

The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955)

There’s nothing like a good monster from the deep movie. And unfortunately The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is nothing like a good monster from the deep movie. But it does feature a man-in-a-rubber-suit monster so it can’t be all bad.

People keep turning up dead on the beach in some small seaside town somewhere in the US. They have radiation burns, which immediately causes the locals to suspect the oceanographic institute nearby. Because, you know, oceanographers are well-known for dabbling in stuff like death rays and atomic energy. Well as it happens the work of Dr King at the Pacific Oceanographic Institute is mostly concerned with death rays and atomic energy.

Two government investigators are despatched to the town. One of them is an oceanographer whose work mainly focuses on death rays and atomic energy. I’m starting to think that whoever wrote the screenplay had a pretty serious grudge against oceanographers.

The radiation burns are caused by a beam of radioactive light coming from the ocean floor. And of course where you have beams of radioactive light you can be pretty certain you’ll have monsters as well. It’s actually the monster who is causing these people’s deaths - he keeps tipping them out of their boats and once in the water they’re zapped by the beam of radioactive light. Now if none of that makes any sense to you that’s probably because you’re not an oceanographer.

The government men are not the only ones on the scene. There’s also a glamorous blonde spy. She looks every inch like a glamorous blonde spy but unfortunately she doesn’t do much. It seems than being a spy mostly involves lying on the beach working on your tan. It’s not as exciting as being an oceanographer but it’s probably a lot safer. She has an accomplice to do her dirty work for her, which is one of the perks attached to being a glamorous blonde spy.

Luckily the movie only runs for 80 minutes but even at that length it’s slow and ponderous. If you want to make a monster-from-the-deep man-in-a-rubber-suit movie that takes itself seriously you need to be pretty good. Universal got away with it with their Creature from the Black Lagoon but the makers of The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues don’t have what it takes. The safest approach to take to this sort of thing is to go for pure fun, as Del Tenney did so successfully with The Horror of Party Beach. Sadly there’s not a lot of fun to be had with The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues.

The acting is dull, the special effects are unexciting, the plot is predictable. At the end we discover that There Are Things We Should Not Tamper With.

The monster is very very silly, which is one of the few good things about this movie.

This movie is available in Region 4 paired with another low-budget sci-fi/horror feature, Attack of the Giant Leeches. It’s a truly horrible print but I guess this is a movie that nobody is likely to bother doing any kind of restoration on.

Monday 13 February 2012

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967)

The Mummy’s Shroud was the last Hammer movie made at Bray Studios. This 1967 production was also director John Gilling’s final movie. Hammer’s mummy movies are a bit of a mixed bag. The best of them was rather surprisingly their last, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, but The Mummy’s Shroud has its moments.

The plot is fairly standard for mummy movies. We start with a prologue, recounting events 4,000 years ago. The Pharaoh’s brother seized the throne and his devoted servant Prem set off into the desert with the heir Kah-to-Bey. When Kah-to-Bey was near death he presented Prem with the seal of the Pharaoh. Prem constructed a tomb for his beloved master and was later buried with him.

In 1920 an expedition sets out to find the tomb, led by the famous Egyptologist Sir Basil Walden (André Morell). One mummy had been found years earlier. Sir Basil believes it to be Prem. He intends to find the mummy of Kah-to-Bey. When the expedition fails to return a rescue expedition is sent, led by the wealthy Stanley Preston (John Phillips), the man who financed the original expedition.

Sir Basil and his team have in fact the tomb. They are warned off by a mysterious Arab (Roger Delgado) who claims to be the keeper of the tomb, but undaunted they carry on. The mummy of Kah-to-Bey is found and is taken to Cairo.

Of course there is a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb of the Pharaoh. And of course it’s not very long before the first of those who entered the tomb meets an untimely end. One of the expedition members, Claire de Sangre (Maggie Kimberly) had already had psychic premonitions of doom even before the tomb was found.

There are no iconic horror stars in this film but there’s a solid cast and John Gilling’s script features more complex characterisation than you generally expect in a horror film. The most interesting characters are Stanley Preston and his wife Barbara (Elizabeth Sellars). Preston has already shown one side of his character, stealing the credit for the expedition’s success. This point is made in a clever scene in which he dictates his own self-serving account of the expedition to his long-suffering but faithful assistant Longbarrow (Michael Ripper) while the rest of the team is doing all the work and taking all the risks. When the curse claims its first victim we discover that he is a coward as well.

Barbara Preston has always despised her husband but she hadn’t realised until now just how much she despised him. She can’t bring herself to hate him - she merely feels sorry for him. It’s a nicely judged performance by Elizabeth Sellars.

The early part of the film is a little slow but as doom continues to pursue the expedition members it starts to hit its stride and there are some effective horror moments.

The mummy makeup won’t please everybody but I thought it did its job well enough.

John Phillips is rather good as Preston - like his wife we come to despise him but we almost feel sorry for him. He’s a man who has never been honest with himself and he’s more an object for pity than a villain. André Morell is reliable as always. Roger Delgado overacts outrageously. Maggie Kimberly can’t act at all but she looks suitably spooky. Catherine Lacey nearly steals the movie as a maniacal old fortune-teller.

Michael Ripper gets a more substantial part than usual and makes the most of it. He must have been overjoyed when he read the script and discovered he wasn’t going to be playing an innkeeper!

Not one of Hammer’s best but still a fairly entertaining movie and worth a look.

Anchor Bay’s DVD presentation is superb.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Buck Rogers (1939)

The 1939 Buck Rogers serial combines most of the clichés of the adventure serial, and it does so quite entertainingly.

Lieutenant Rogers (Buster Crabbe) is the pilot of a military dirigible that is forced down in a storm in a remote snow-covered mountainous location. Since there was no time to get off a last radio message the two surviving crew members, Rogers and the teenaged Buddy (Jackie Moran) are never found. Not at the time anyway. But luckily they had on board a canister of a new experimental gas that can put people into a state of suspended animation. So when they are finally found five hundred yeas later they are still alive.

Things have changed on Earth, but not for the better. Civilisation has paid the price for allowing racketeers to flourish. Now one such racketeer, the infamous Killer Kane, runs the entire planet. Well, almost the entire planet. One last outpost of law-abiding citizenry remains - the Hidden City.

Buck and Buddy are lucky enough to be found by a Hidden City spaceship, and soon Buck is Colonel Buck Rogers, ace Hidden City spaceship pilot. Fortunately for him flying a 25th century spaceship is apparently pretty much the same as piloting a 1930s dirigible so he doesn’t need any extra training.

The Hidden City is by no means defenceless. Under the leadership of the Scientist-General Dr Huer they have built up their own fleet of spaceships and they have some nifty technology, like an invisibility ray. They’re still heavily outnumbered though so some allies would come in handy. Someone suggests that the inhabitants of Saturn would be ideal allies so Buck and Buddy are off to Saturn, accompanied by the beautiful Lieutenant Wilma Deering (Constance Moran).

Forging an alliance presents problems since Killer Kane dispatches his own spaceships to Saturn, hoping to persuade the Saturnians to ally with him instead. Luckily Buck and his companions have gained the loyalty of the brave Saturnian Prince Tallen.

Being a serial there are naturally endless obstacles to overcome and the fortunes of war swing back and forth.

It’s all great fun, although perhaps not as good as the Flash Gordon serials.

Killer Kane is not the most memorable of serial villains, and gangsters as the bad guys, even gangsters with ray guns and spaceships, don’t quite measure up to Ming the Merciless and his minions from the Flash Gordon serials.

The most dreaded weapons in Killer Kane’s arsenal are his amnesia helmets which turn people into mindless robots. They have the advantage of being reasonably fearsome without requiring any additional special effects!

No-one in 1939 had any clear idea what an actual spaceship would look like. The spaceships in Buck Rogers look a bit like a combination of an aircraft and a very small ocean liner. They’re silly but kind of cool. The special effects in general are delightfully silly.

Buster Crabbe had been a famous athlete, winning a swimming gold medal at the 1932 Olympic Games, so he looks the part of a hero. As an actor he’s not the greatest but he’s impossible not to like and he became the king of the serials. Constance Moran is quite good. In general the acting is what you want in a serial - it’s not great but everyone is very excited.

Anthony Warde is adequate as Killer Kane but the role really needed to be overplayed a bit more.

The twelve episodes are not in fantastic shape and haven’t been restored for DVD release but the picture quality is quite watchable. The slightly flickering quality resulting from minor print damage actually enhances the atmosphere.

This is good clean goofy fun.

Saturday 11 February 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

It’s almost impossible to count the number of times that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles has been adapted for either the big or the small screen. The 1959 version from Hammer Films is one of the more interesting attempts.

The plot of course concerns the curse on the Baskerville family. In the mid-18th century the notoriously debauched Sir Hugo Baskerville brutally killed a young woman. Since that time his successors to the title have come to untimely ends, apparently terrified to death by a monstrous hound from Hell. Well that’s the story that is told to Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) when he succeeds to the title and inherits the vast Baskerville estates following the death of his uncle Sir Charles Baskerville.

Dr Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) had been a close friend of Sir Charles and is so concerned about Sir Henry’s safety that he has taken it upon himself to call in the famous consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing).

Holmes and Watson (André Morell) accompany Sir Henry to his estate in Devon but keeping Sir Henry alive while trying to unravel the mystery proves to be something of a challenge.

Peter Cushing is a splendid Holmes, not quite as good as Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett but still very very good. André Morell is also excellent - his Dr Watson is a far cry from the bumbling Watson of Nigel Bruce. Christopher Lee is a surprisingly sympathetic Sir Henry Baskerville. One might have expected him to make the character stiff-necked and arrogant but he resists that temptation. His Sir Henry is clearly a man desperately trying to convince himself that he isn’t afraid but not really succeeding.

As usual in a Hammer production there are some fine character actors in the supporting cast, with Miles Malleson as the scatter-brained bishop and amateur naturalist being particularly entertaining.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the quintessential gothic detective tale and was therefore an ideal choice for Hammer. With Terence Fisher directing, production design by Bernard Robinson and cinematography by Jack Asher you’d expect this film to be dripping with gothic atmosphere, and it does not disappoint. In fact the gothic elements are laid on very thickly indeed, an approach which works extremely well. Hammer not surprisingly emphasised the horror overtones in promoting this movie.

Fisher had proved himself equally adept in directing both film noir and gothic horror films and he’s clearly right at home with this material.

This was I believe the first Sherlock Holmes movie made in colour. The rich Technicolor palette and widescreen format makes it much more cinematic than earlier film versions. The outdoor scenes have a very artificial filmed-on-a-sound-stage look which perfectly captures the brooding and hostile feel of the desolate moors around the Baskerville estate. The outdoor scenes are actually more claustrophobic than the interior scenes, quite appropriate given that that’s where the danger lies.

A thoroughly enjoyable offering that combines the worlds of Hammer gothic and Sherlock Holmes very effectively.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Dead of Night (1945)

Dead of Night, produced by the famous Ealing Studios, is a very highly regarded 1945 British horror film which impressed me enormously the first time I saw it, some years ago. It still stands up pretty well despite a few weaknesses.

The perennial problem with a portmanteau film is to find a way to give the movie a unified feel. When the segments are by different writers based on stories by different writers, with different directors, it’s even more of a challenge. In such a case much depends on the framing story. Dead of Night scores highly in that area since the framing story is very strong.

Architect Walter Craig (Melvyn Johns) accepts an invitation to spend a weekend at a country house. The owner wants to do some major renovations and he wants Craig’s opinion.

Craig has never been to Kent but as soon as he walks through the door he realises he knows this house. And these people. They’re from his dream. A dream he’s been having regularly. He can never remember the details of the dream afterwards but he knows something terrible always happens.

Eliot Foley and his house guests try to reassure the worried architect. Luckily, or possibly unluckily, one of the guests is a distinguished psychiatrist, Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk). The doctor dismisses Craig’s fears as groundless but as it happens all of the guests have had at least one disturbing experience with the supernatural, which they each recount.

The first three stories are not startlingly original but they’re well executed. The first deals with precognition, the second is a ghost story which gains added creepiness from being associated with a children’s game, the third is the ever-popular evil mirror opening onto the past story. The fourth story is an attempt at comic relief, a golfing ghost story. The idea that some comic relief was needed to relieve the tension in horror movies was all-pervasive in the 30s and 40s but it was never a good idea and this one seems very out of place.

The fifth story redeems all the weaknesses of the first four. It’s an absolute corker. The evil ventriloquist’s dummy has long been a staple of horror but this is the finest ever example of the breed. Michael Redgrave gives a career-best performance as ventriloquist Maxwell Frere.

The framing story is genuinely quite chilling. The ending creeped me out in a big way the first time I saw it and it’s still effective the second time around.

The original stories were by H. G. Wells, E. F. Benson, John Baines and Angus MacPhail. The directors were Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden and Alberto Cavalcanti. Dearden’s and Cavalcanti’s contributions are the most atmospheric and the most effective.

Redgrave’s unforgettable performance is certainly the highlight of the movie but the acting from the entire cast is generally excellent.

This is the first time I’ve seen the movie on DVD and the Region 4 release is quite impressive although lacking in extras.