Sunday 29 September 2013

Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison passed without attracting too much attention when it was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1968 but since then it has deservedly built up a strong cult following. It’s one of the all-time great psycho movies.

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) has just been released from the mental hospital in which he has been confined for many years, since the tragic death of his aunt in a house fire. A house fire that Dennis started. Dennis is now cured but of course his probation officer, the kindly Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), will still be keeping an eye on him. But Azenauer is confident that Dennis will make it.

Once he is released Dennis drops out of sight and it is a year before Azenauer finally tracks him down to a small town in Massachusetts. Dennis however has a steady job and he has a girlfriend and he seems to be doing pretty well. Azenauer knows he should take Dennis back to the hospital but he knows that would have a devastating effect on Dennis. And he really seems to be managing quite well. Azenauer decides the best thing is to let him stay on in the town although he will of course now be keeping a much closer watch on him.

The girl Dennis has met is Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday), a perky and very attractive high school senior. Sue Ann is bright and cheerful and she really takes a shine to the shy and diffident young man. Dennis of course is hopelessly in love. He just can’t believe his luck that a pretty and charming girl like Sue Ann would fall for him.

Part of the attraction on Sue Ann’s part is that Dennis is a lot older and he also has the glamour of being a spy. Dennis works for the CIA. His job at the town’s chemical plant is just a cover. The chemical plant is part of a nefarious plot against the United States. Dennis has been assigned to the case because he’s an experienced agent who has killed a lot of men in the course of duty.

All this is of course a delusion on Dennis’s part. Morton Azenauer is aware of Dennis’s tendency to live in a fantasy world but he thinks that it’s really fairly harmless and that Dennis will gradually adapt himself to the real world.

Does Sue Ann believe Dennis’s story? At first she obviously does believe it. After all she’s an 18-year-old high school girl in a small town. As time goes on she may have started to have her doubts. As she remarks on one occasion, she is surprised the CIA lets him out on his own without a keeper. That’s the essence of the plot. Dennis is the psycho and the sweet normal girl that he meets turns out to be a full-blown psycho herself. Dennis is certainly crazy but Sue Ann has her own brand of craziness going on in her head. It takes Dennis a long time to realise exactly what that something is that is happening in her head.

Dennis and Sue Ann are very happy together, living out Dennis’s fantasy life. Sue Ann craves excitement and the whole secret agent thing is great fun. And what girl wouldn’t enjoy blowing things up? You see Dennis’s mission is to sabotage the chemical plant. He needs an assistant and he promises to ask his CIA controller if Sue Ann can be recruited. It will be a dangerous mission but Sue Ann is willing to accept the risks.

Dennis has always lived happily in his fantasy world all on his own. On his own he can control things. He makes the rules of the games he plays in his mind. He largely ignores the real world. Now he will discover that when you take on a partner you’re not completely in control any more, and eventually a collision may occur between your fantasies and reality. When that happens you’re not in control at all. Dennis doesn’t know it yet but that collision is already on the horizon.

For all his craziness Dennis is actually a kind-hearted gentle young man. He lives in a fantasy world because the real world is too frightened. He’s a scared little boy. And he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He didn’t even want to hurt his aunt - he was sure she was out of the house when he lit the fire. In his own way he even knows he’s crazy, or at least he has moments when he knows that his fantasies are a game he is playing with himself.

For the first half of the film it is Dennis who is leading Sue Ann into his world of madness and paranoia. He feels in control and at times slips into a slightly condescending attitude, playing at being the man of the world, the man who has done it all and seen it all, the slightly world-weary experienced secret agent. As soon as this madness starts to intersect with the real world, with tragic results, we see a switch-around. Now it is Sue Ann who is doing the leading. And Dennis is now like a frightened puppy who has no choice but to follow his owner.

Much of the success of this movie is dependent on Tuesday Weld. No-one ever doubted Anthony Perkins’ ability to play psychos. To make the story work Weld has to be just as convincing but she has to be convincing as a scary crazy psycho and convincing as a sweet innocent high school senior. It’s a challenging role and Weld rises to the occasion with spectacular success.

By 1968 Anthony Perkins was well and truly pigeon-holed as the go-to guy for psycho roles. He was just so good in those roles. This particular role offers him a few additional challenges. As well as the madness Perkins has to convey Dennis’s vulnerability and his complex view of himself - his ability at times to see that the fantasy is a fantasy while still going on living in it. He has to be both frightening and frightened. And he has to be likeable. Perkins succeeds brilliantly on all counts.

This is a story that lends itself to a black comedy approach and I doubt whether a director today would be able to resist the temptation to play it that way. It is played partially that way but director Noel Black does not allow that tendency to take over completely. The story is essentially a twisted tragedy and the characters need to be taken seriously. Even crazy people feel emotional pain and Black makes sure that we never forget that we are dealing with real people, however unreal their mental worlds may be. Black spent most of his career in television. Pretty Poison is the movie that should have established his reputation but sadly it didn’t happen.

The Region 1 DVD from 20th Century-Fox is barebones but it’s an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Pretty Poison is delightfully twisted with enough kinks in the plot to keep things interesting, complex characters who go beyond the usual movie psycho stereotypes and powerhouse performances by the two leads. A truly superb movie and very highly recommended.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Flight to Mars (1951)

Made in 1951, Flight to Mars was a fairly ambitious effort from Poverty Row studio Monogram. It’s one of the earliest science fiction films to attempt to deal reasonably realistically with space travel, as opposed to the more or less pure fantasy approach of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials.

The first manned mission from Earth to Mars seems to be progressing fairly successfully until they run into a meteor shower of the kind that would bedevil so many science fiction space missions. Their landing gear is damaged which leaves them with a choice - they can risk a landing on Mars knowing that they may not be able to take off again or they can return to Earth. Being a brave and dedicated lot they elect to go ahead with a crash landing on the red planet.

They land safely enough but their spacecraft suffers so much damage that a return to Earth seems impossible. That is until they meet the Martians. The Martians have a civilisation that is in many ways ahead of Earth’s but oddly enough they have never perfected space travel. They live in vast underground cities and manufacture their own air and water as well as growing crops hydroponically. The Martians seem friendly and anxious to help our space travellers get back to Earth. There are however a few very important things that the astronauts from Earth don’t know about Mars and the Martians. Returning to Earth will not be as easy as they had anticipated.

The plot seems very clichéd today but you have to keep reminding yourself that this movie was made in 1951 and that most of the plot devices that seem hackneyed had not yet become clichés. The spacecraft damaged by a meteor shower, the underground civilisation on Mars, the dying planet scenario with a population needing to find a new home, all these things would have seemed quite fresh to an audience in 1951. While they seem old today they won’t detract from your enjoyment of the movie.

The crew of the Mars mission comprises chief pilot and engineer, Jim Barker (Arthur Franz), a couple of typical science fiction scientists, Professor Jackson (Richard Gaines) and Dr Lain (John Litel), and to add some extra plot interest they are accompanied by Barker’s scientist girlfriend Carol (Virginia Huston) and journalist Steve Abbott (Cameron Mitchell). Jim Barker, his girlfriend and Steve Abbott provide the ingredients for a romantic triangle that provides the movie’s obligatory romance sub-plot. There’s also a beautiful female Martian scientist to add even more romantic complications.

The Martians look completely human which certainly saved perennially budget-conscious Monogram on makeup costs. The Martians have been listening to our radio communications for years so they all speak English, again conveniently simplifying things.

The acting is fairly competent, especially by the standards of Monogram’s very cheap B-movies. Even though his character seems somewhat superfluous to the plot Cameron Mitchell’s undeniable acting chops establish Steve Abbott as the dominant character.

This is civilised space travel, where you can smoke your pipe in peace without anyone hassling you with any silliness about no smoking in the spacecraft.

Director Lesley Selander helmed an enormous number of low-budget movies and while Monogram’s meagre resources and the very tight five-day shooting schedule don’t allow him to do anything fancy he gets the job done. Arthur Strawn’s screenplay doesn’t provide too many surprises but it’s also quite competent.

Monogram did splash out a little by making this movie in colour. The special effects are typical of its era, with wonderfully ’50s Space Age miniatures and lots of matte paintings. The great retro-futuristic costumes add to the enjoyment and the sets are generally not too bad.

The one minor problem I had with this movie was that the ending was a bit rushed. I’m not sure if this was because the print had been cut (possibly cut for length for television transmission) or simply because it was a B-movie and they wanted to wrap things up within a limited running time. It’s not really a major problem though.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones. The transfer is passable for a budget DVD release. The movie was shot in the Academy ratio of 4:3 so the aspect ratio isn’t an issue. The movie looks its age but that will add to the appeal for fans of ’50s sci-fi.

And Flight to Mars is exactly the sort of movie that those fans of ’50s sci-fi love so much. They won’t be disappointed by this one. It’s considerable better than you’d expect from Monogram. Recommended.

Thursday 19 September 2013

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie, released in 1932, was one of the first zombie movies. And it remains one of the best.

Neil Parker (John Harron) and his fiancée Madeline (Madge Bellamy) arrive in Haiti where they are to be married. On the ship carrying them to Haiti they had met Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont had persuaded them to postpone their wedding until they reached Haiti. Beaumont had become besotted by Madeline and now he is determined to have her, no matter what methods he has to adopt. Beaumont asks Monsieur Legendre (Bela Lugosi) to help him. Legendre agrees, but Beaumont is not sure he is prepared to pay Legendre’s price. But eventually Beaumont decides that he will pay any price, even Legendre’s.

Neil and Madeline had already heard rumours of zombies when they first arrived at the island. Missionary Dr Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) assures Neil that the legends of zombies have some basis in reality. Neil will soon discover just how true that is, when his new bride becomes one of the walking dead.

Beaumont had assumed that he would get Madeline but he is horrified by the zombie Madeline. Legendre has meantime decided he wants Madeline for himself.

Legendre, popularly known as Murder Legendre, has his own private army of zombies. He had learnt the secret of creating zombies from a voodoo witch-doctor. Legendre’s private zombie army is composed entirely of his former enemies, a fact that appeals to Legendre enormously.

Neil gives way to drink and depression but he never entirely gives up hope of restoring Madeline to normality and to himself and he has a powerful ally in Dr Bruner who has a considerable knowledge of local superstition.

Bela Lugosi fans always point to this movie as one of his finest performances, and they are quite right to do so. It’s a good meaty role that suits him perfectly and Lugosi is superb. This is Lugosi at his most charming and at his most sinister and we have no difficulty in believing that he is a man who can exercise a hypnotic control over both the living and the dead.

The other actors are distinctly subsidiary although they’re mostly adequate. Robert Frazer is very melodramatic as Charles Beaumont, which is exactly the kind of performance this movie demands. Madge Bellamy has the right kind of mysterious gothic beauty.

Victor Halperin directed and does a fine job. His brother Edward acted as producer, the movie being made by their own production company. Victor Halperin quite rightly focuses his attention on Lugosi’s mesmeric evil and the close-up shots of Lugosi’s eyes became a major icon of 1930s horror. Halperin consistently creates an atmosphere of stifling tropical evil and his style is pleasingly visually inventive. The movie was made on leased lots at Universal which partly accounts for the high production values.

Garnet Weston wrote the screenplay based on a novel by William B. Seabrook. His screenplay captures the atmosphere of voodoo-ridden Haiti extremely well.

This movie uses matte paintings very effectively. They look artificial and this enhances the nightmare-like quality of the film. The climactic sequences at the castle by the sea are wonderfully atmospheric.

This movie has fallen into the public domain and many of the DVD editions floating about are less than impressive, including the one I saw from an outfit called Payless. While the transfer was a long way from being premium quality it was quite watchable.

This is a good movie anyway but Lugosi’s performance elevates it to the very front rank of 1930s horror movies. This movie is essential viewing for any horror fan and is very highly recommended.

Sunday 15 September 2013

The Woman Eater (1958)

The Woman Eater is a delightfully silly 1958 British science fiction horror movie. The woman eater of the title is actually a plant, making this a representative of the carnivorous killer plant sub-genre, although this plant is actually a god of sorts. More about that later.

The movie opens in the Explorers’ Club in London where Dr James Moran is trying to persuade a young man to accompany him on his next expedition to some godforsaken jungle or other. One of the older members reminds the youngster that while the Moran family has produced some geniuses it’s also produced some prime nutters who have ended up in the loony bin. Whether Dr James Moran falls into the genius or loony category remains to be seen but the viewer will certainly have his suspicions.

The expedition ends disastrously but Dr Moran does achieve his main objective - he has brought back to England with him the juju of some native tribe. This juju is a plant that eats women but it allegedly also holds the secret to the conquest of death. That’s the bit that interests Dr Moran. If he can make a serum from the plant he will be able to bring the dead back to life, but first he will have to find food for the plant.

When a young woman goes missing not far from Dr Moran’s country house the police do not at first suspect that they are dealing with a mad scientist. Of course we know what happened to the girl. After being lured to Dr Moran’s house his henchman (a native from the tribe whose juju Dr Moran stole) provided the drum music that entices women into the deadly embrace of the killer plant.

Sally is a dancer at a girly show in a carnival. She meets motor mechanic Jack Venner who falls for her at first sight. After accidentally getting her fired from the carnival Venner suggests that Sally ask Dr Moran for a job. She gets the job, as an assistant to the scientist-explorer’s housekeeper. The housekeeper, Margaret Santor, used to be Dr Moran’s girlfriend but he lost interest in her when she started to lose her looks. Margaret is not at all happy about Sally’s arrival on the scene.

What Dr Moran hasn’t considered is that you don’t go around stealing plants that are gods with impunity. And trusting a native of the tribe that worships the plant might not be the best of ideas. Keeping a cast-off lover as a housekeeper is also the sort of idea that can land you in a good deal of trouble. Dr Moran really hasn’t put enough thought into this mad scientist business.

The rest of the plot follows pretty much the pattern that the viewer will be anticipating.

The juju plant looks pretty cool in a silly B-movie sort of way, if you know what I mean. Fans of 50s sci-fi horror will not be displeased with it.

Director Charles Saunders had a long if not exactly brilliant career in movies and television. Given the very low budget he had to work with he does a solid enough job. Screenwriter Brandon Fleming’s career on the other hand was both short and undistinguished but his story includes everything a fan of this sort of movie will be looking for.

George Coulouris is the mad scientist. His performance is fine but a bit low-key. You can’t help wishing for someone like Michael Gough to liven things up a little. Coulouris isn’t quite menacing enough or crazy enough. Vera Day obviously got the role of Sally on the basis of her chest measurements rather than her acting ability. The other players are adequate if not terribly exciting.

What matters is that the movie has the right sort of goofy premise and handles it with the right sort of seriousness. You can’t make a movie like this work if you try to do it in an intentionally campy way. The camp quality has to be unconscious to be truly satisfying.

Image’s DVD presentation is adequate. The transfer is in the correct widescreen aspect ratio but it’s not anamorphic. Picture quality is good though. There are no extras.

The Woman Eater is not a great movie by any means but it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t really deserve the obscurity into which it has fallen. Recommended.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Erik the Conqueror (1961)

Erik the Conqueror is an early Mario Bava effort, release in 1961. The original Italian title was Gli invasori. It was released in Britain as Fury of the Vikings and in the US as Erik the Conqueror. Bava had worked on a number of peplums and had made Hercules in the Haunted World earlier that year so he had by this time accumulated plenty of experience in the making of action-adventure movies and he is clearly very comfortable with this kind of picture.

Like any good historical epic this one plays fast and loose with historical fact, to the point where it can best be described as a historical fantasy.

It is somewhere around the 8th century of the Christian era and the Vikings have been raiding Britain for many years, even establishing their own miniature kingdoms in the British Isles. This is not quite the Vikings vs the British picture you might expect. Both the British and the Vikings are portrayed fairly sympathetically. Indeed it seems likely that there will soon be peace between them, until an ambitious and unscrupulous British lord, Sir Ruthford (Andrea Checchi), sets them at each other’s throats again in furtherance of his own schemes for self-aggrandisement.

I’m using the term British deliberately since it’s not entirely clear if the Vikings’ adversaries are English or Scottish. It seems to depend on which version of the movie you see!

The Viking king, Arald, is slain in battle and his two young sons are separated in the confusion of battle. One son (Eron) is rescued by the Vikings while the other (Erik) is rescued by the British and is raised by the British queen, Queen Alice, as her son. Twenty years later Eron will lead an expedition against the British while Erik, now Duke of Helford, will lead the British defenders.

Eron is in love with Daya, a vestal virgin pledged to the gods. That’s likely to land him in a good deal of trouble but he reckons on becoming king, after which he can release her from her vow. Daya’s twin sister Rama will fall in love with the young Duke of Helford, not knowing that she has fallen in love with Eron’s brother.

Eron and Erik are of course destined to meet again. The circularity of the plot is emphasised by key scenes at the beginning of the movie that are echoed by similar scenes at the end. Both Eron and Erik believe in destiny, and destiny is not something any man can evade.

The scheming Sir Ruthford captures Queen Alice by betraying her castle. Destiny will not only bring the two separated brothers together, it will also bring them both into deadly conflict with Sir Ruthford.

The Viking movie craze in Italy in the early 60s was triggered by the international success of the Hollywood epic The Vikings. The plot of Erik the Conqueror is inspired to a degree by that of the American film. It’s a good story and it offers plenty of potential to someone like Bava.

Erik the Conqueror has the right combination of action, tragedy and romance and when you add Bava’s visual magic you have all the ingredients for success. And in fact the movie proved to be extremely successful at the box office.

The acting is generally quite good. Daya and Rama are played by real-life twins Alice and Ellen Kessler, popular cabaret stars who had appeared in many movies but had never taken on serious acting roles before. They both acquit themselves fairly well. Andrea Checchi makes a fine conniving villain. George Ardisson is adequate as Erik. The acting honours though go to Cameron Mitchell as Eron. Mitchell was an accomplished actor who had enjoyed considerable success on the Broadway stage. His promising American film acting career was cut short by an unfortunate misunderstanding with the Internal Revenue Service which led him to leave the US and seek work in Britain and in Europe. He was certainly a class above the kind of actors you usually find in movies like this and he gives a fine performance as a character who is not always wholly sympathetic but who grows in stature as the story progresses. Bava was obviously impressed by him and stared him in two further movies.

Bava acted as his own director of photography and the movie is full of distinctive Bava visual touches. Bava’s flair for the use of colour, not just for its own sake but to achieve the dramatic effects he desired, is very much in evidence. He was fond of using coloured gels but he always knew how far he could go. The superb visuals enhance the story rather than dominate it. So much has been written about Bava’s genius with colour that there’s little I can add. Bava was equally brilliant at coming up with ways to make a low-budget movie look classy and expensive.

This movie was a very low budget movie although you’d never know that by looking it it. Few directors have ever been able to match Bava’s genius for accomplishing so much with so little. The spectacular sea battle scene looks as if it must have cost a fortune. In fact Bava did it for a total cost of less than a hundred dollars. He uses matte shots and miniatures and blue screen shots throughout the picture and always makes them look convincing. He needed an impressive-looking castle on a hill. He did it with a photo cut out of a National Geographic magazine and a glass matte shot and it’s as splendid a castle as you could hope to see. He even contrived to have a flag flying from the battlements fluttering in the breeze. He had very little money to work with but he had patience and he had a flair for improvisation and that was enough.

There are some great sets, many left over from earlier films (a useful cost-saving measure). Bava’s skill makes them look extraordinarily atmospheric.

The Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD offers a very fine transfer and some worthwhile extras, including a commentary track by Bava expert Tim Lucas and an interview with star Cameron Mitchell (who clearly had great admiration for Bava). It’s a DVD release that is fully worthy of Bava’s talents.

Erik the Conqueror looks magnificent and it’s consistently entertaining. You can’t ask for more. Highly recommended.

Sunday 8 September 2013

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Most of Val Lewton’s 1940s RKO horror movies have at least some affinity to film noir, and this is seen at its most striking and most dramatic in The Seventh Victim.

Released in 1943 and directed by Mark Robson, The Seventh Victim is of course also a very fine horror film, and it’s one of the subtlest horror films ever made.

The deal Lewton had with RKO is that the studio would give him a title and he would then have to construct a movie around it. It sounds crazy but it worked and it gave Lewton the almost complete artistic freedom that he craved - all the studio demanded was that the resulting movie should be scary, it should be made within a very limited budget and it should use their title. It was an arrangement that suited Lewton perfectly.

Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter in her film debut) is a schoolgirl who learns that her sister Jacqueline is missing. She sets off for New York to find her. She eventually discovers that Jacqueline has become involved with devil-worshippers. She meets the men in Jacqueline’s life, an odd assortment including a failed poet and a cynical psychiatrist. Jacqueline is obviously running from something but it takes Mary quite a while to learn what it is. In fact, as the quotation from Donne that open the movie makes clear, Jacqueline is both running from and running towards death.

What follows is structurally a detective story with first Mary and then the poet Jason acting as amateur detectives, but the movie’s dark themes are enough to qualify it as a horror film. They’re also enough to qualify it as true film noir.

DeWitt Bodeen had been responsible for the screenplay for Cat People was was given the job of writing the initial treatment for The Seventh Victim. Lewton wasn’t satisfied with it and assigned Charles O’Neal to do a complete re-write. Bodeen and O’Neal then collaborated on the script with Lewton, as always, doing the final re-write. Lewton had asked Bodeen to attend a meeting of a society of devil-worshippers, which he did. The writer was struck by the ordinariness and the futility of these New York Satanists, qualities which characterised the Satanists in the movie. The movie can be seen  as being as much as anything an attack on the evil of nihilism, nihilism being the quality that makes people vulnerable to cults such as the movie’s devil-worshippers.

Lewton added numerous literary allusions to the screenplay and these allusions, rather than seeming pompous, add considerably to the movie’s essential fatalism.

The screenplay has obvious film noir elements with Jacqueline being the basically good person whose flaws lead her down into darkness, these flaws being her boredom, her obsession with death and her nihilism. The stylistic approach strongly reinforces the film noir feel.

Jean Brooks as Jacqueline looks like a cross between a film noir femme fatale and a proto-goth. She looks in fact like the kind of girl who’d join a Satanist cult for the thrill of it. The characters all have more depth and complexity than is usual in B-pictures and Tom Conway as psychiatrist Dr Louis Judd and Erford Gage as Jason succeed in capturing the essential ambiguity of their characters. All the characters are torn between light and darkness, between good and evil, between life and death, and all must make a final choice.

Mark Robson had edited Lewton’s first three horror pictures, directed by Jacques Tourneur, and when RKO assigned Tourneur to other projects Lewton promoted Robson to director. Lewton was very pleased with the results, and rightly so. Robson had a tremendous admiration for Lewton and knew exactly what Lewton wanted.

Few cinematographers have ever exceeded Nicholas Musuraca’s brilliance in capturing the soul and spirit of film noir and he’s at his best in this film. There’s nothing flashy about his photography but the atmosphere of doom, of evil and of inevitable catastrophe is palpable right from the start.

The subway scene with the corpse of Mr August is one of the great visual set-pieces that distinguished all of Lewton’s RKO films. The earlier scene in which August is killed is yet another and it’s a superb exercise in suspense and atmosphere. The opening scene in the office of the headmistress at Mary’s school is impressive for the amount of trouble taken for what is really a fairly minor scene. Lewton insisted on getting the details right, this being one of the qualities that makes his RKO movies so much more than mere B-movies. Even more impressive is the starkness and bleakness in the early scene in which Mary enters Jacqueline’s room to find that it contains nothing but a chair positioned beneath a noose. There’s also an ominous scene with Mary in the shower being warned off by Mrs Redi, with the shadowy figure of Mrs Redi seen through the shower curtain.

This is one of the darkest Hollywood movies of the 40s. Superficially it paints an extraordinarily bleak picture of life, so bleak that death seems welcome. It’s worth pointing out though that the characters do have a choice. In some cases the choices they have made may seem to make death the only attractive option left to them, but they didn’t have to make those choices. This is something that Dr Louis Judd points out to the Satanists, that they have chosen darkness and death but they could have chosen life. Whether Dr Judd himself has made the wrong choices is open to debate. The fact that the characters have a choice means that the movie is not simply an exercise in adolescent self-pity and gloom. Life may be bleak but nihilism makes it a good deal bleaker.

The Region 1 DVD includes a number of extras including a commentary track, and it boasts a very fine transfer.

The Seventh Victim is one of the greatest of Hollywood horror films and it is also a fascinating exercise in film noir. It’s a complex movie that becomes more fascinating with each viewing. Very highly recommended.

Thursday 5 September 2013

ffolkes (1979)

Sir Roger Moore is always going to be remembered as The Saint and as James Bond but over the course of the 1970s he did a number of rather interesting movies in which he demonstrated unexpected versatility as an actor. One of these was ffolkes, also released as North Sea Hijack.

A group of terrorists hijack a North Sea oil drilling platform. They demand a ransom of £25 million or they will blow it up. The British government may have no alternative but to pay. If the platform is blown up the total costs to the nation’s economy will run into billions of pounds. There is only one man who may be able to help them. That man is Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (Roger Moore). To say that ffolkes is an eccentric would be an understatement of epic proportions, but he’s all they’ve got and they'd better hope he can do the job.

ffolkes and his team of divers specialise in this sort of thing. ffolkes had in fact already been contacted by Lloyds of London who were concerned about the security of North Sea oil rigs, they being the ones insuring these facilities. ffolkes had come to the conclusion that the only way to hijack a North Sea oil rig would be by first hijacking one of the supply ships. That is exactly the plan the real terrorists adopted. Fortunately ffolkes had already given thought to ways in which such a situation could be dealt with.

The terrorists are led by Lou Kramer (Anthony Perkins typecast yet again as a crazy). They hijacked the supply ship Esther. The oil company had been in a whimsical mood when these facilities were commissioned. The drilling platform is named Ruth while the main platform several miles away is named Jennifer. Having taken over Esther the terrorists have proceeded to the two platforms and have rigged limpet mines to both as well as rigging a bomb on board Esther. At a touch of a button Kramer can blow up either platform or the supply ship.

The Royal Navy is responsible for the protection of North Sea oil installations but this is a job that is beyond the capabilities even of their Royal Marine Commandos. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Francis Brindsen (James Mason) is not happy about the idea of civilians being employed to do the Navy’s job but he accepts that there is no alternative. ffolkes and his men are the only ones with the necessary specialised expertise.

ffolkes will have to find a way to get both himself and Admiral Brindsen on board the Esther. Having the admiral there is the only way to convince the terrorists that the British government really does intend to negotiate with them. In fact the government has not the slightest intention of negotiating but they have to make Kramer think that they will. ffolkes has a plan for such a situation but it will demand split-second timing and a certain amount of luck. Or at least an absence of bad luck.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen helmed a number of action adventure films during his career and he displays a very sure touch. Jack Davies wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, the film rights for which had already been sold before the novel was published.

Anthony Perkins never had any difficulty in playing psychotics and he’s at his twitchy best here. James Mason is good as always although his part is rather undemanding. Jack Watson as the Norwegian skipper of the supply ship and David Hedison as the man in charge of Jennifer are both solid.

Roger Moore is the star here and he gives a full-blooded and highly entertaining performance as the wildly eccentric ffolkes, whose passions are cats, needlepoint and whisky, and who intensely dislikes women. He manages to make ffolkes convincing despite his oddities.

This movie is about as far removed from the Bond movies as any thriller could be. Everything here is in the realm of the possible. This is a movie that tries very hard to be a thoroughly realistic thriller dealing with a situation that is entirely plausible, and it succeeds very well in that aim. It has to rely on the tried-and-tested techniques of suspense rather than on futuristic gadgets. Being a thriller that is the complete antithesis of the Bond movies must have been one of the attractions for Roger Moore, the other attraction being the chance to play such a larger-than-life eccentric.

The contrast between the wildly unstable Kramer, played by Anthony Perkins as a kind of human bomb that could detonate at any moment, and the ice-cold ffolkes works well.

The Region 4 DVD release offers a good anamorphic transfer with no extras.

ffolkes is a taut well-made action thriller that delivers the goods, with Roger Moore’s fine performance being a major bonus. Highly recommended.

Monday 2 September 2013

Voodoo Man (1944)

Voodoo Man was one of the pictures Bela Lugosi made for Monogram after signing with the studio at the beginning of the 1940s. Lugosi had, quite reasonably, come to the conclusion that he had no future with Universal. Monogram were at least offering him starring roles. Lugosi’s Monogram pictures are often disparaged, sometimes quite justifiably, but they did include a few good movies. Voodoo Man, made in 1944, was one of the best.

This was a moderately ambitious effort for the Poverty Row studio. The cast includes a couple of reasonably big names in the horror world, John Carradine and George Zucco, as well as the headliner Lugosi. They also put at least some effort into the sets. And unlike some of Lugosi’s Monogram films this is a fully fledged horror movie.

A young scenario writer from Hollywood, Ralph Dawson (Tod Andrews), is on his way to a small town to marry his sweetheart, Betty Benton (Wanda McKay). His car runs out of gas but luckily for him he gets a lift from Stella (Louise Currie). He then discovers that Stella is going to be matron of honour at his wedding. They find the main road closed but follow a detour sign but then Stella’s car mysteriously gives out on her. Ralph sets off for a nearby house but when he returns Stella is gone. He thinks no more about it until he gets to his fiancée’s house and is informed that Stella has not shown up.

In fact Stella is just the latest in a long line of young women who have gone missing in this county. What the viewer knows but the protagonists don’t is that the girls have been kidnapped by Dr Richard Marlowe (Bela Lugosi). Dr Marlowe’s wife died twenty-two years earlier but he still has hopes of bringing her back to life, by a mixture of science and voodoo. To do this he needs to capture the will to life of a suitable girl. So far he hasn’t found the right girl but he has built up a collection of beautiful young zombies.

Nicholas (George Zucco) runs the local gas station but in fact he’s the one who sends the girls to Dr Marlowe. Nicholas also happens to be a voodoo priest and is helping Dr Marlowe in his efforts to bring his wife back to life. Dr Marlowe’s henchmen also include a creepy simple-minded pervert named Toby (John Carradine).

Stella escapes from Dr Marlowe but she’s been zombie-fied and she just stares blankly into space saying nothing. Ralph, Betty and Betty’s mother can’t figure out what is wrong with her but luckily a doctor who specialises in such cases just happens to arrive on the doorstep and he offers to do what he can for the unfortunate Stella. Of course this doctor is none other than Dr Marlowe! And not long afterwards Stella disappears again - she has been called by Nicholas’s voodoo powers.

The local police have been trying to find the missing girls without any success. Ralph is no on hand to give them a helping hand although it has to be said that any success that he has is more due to good luck than to his non-existent skills as an amateur detective.

By the standards of Monogram movies this is a surprisingly decent-looking production. The budget was minuscule but director of photography Marcel Le Picard manages to get some quite atmospheric shots. Director William “One-Shot” Beaudine was renowned for his refusal to do retakes. His ability to bring in movies on time and on budget was a major asset to a studio like Monogram. He was certainly a fast worker but he was also a competent professional and it shows. The sets look fairly good with enough mad scientist and voodoo paraphernalia to make things convincing.

Lugosi is definitely this movie’s highlight. He obviously knew this was a good part and he throws himself into it with enthusiasm. He demonstrates that when given a good meaty role that suited him he could still produce the goods. This is the kind of vaguely sympathetic mad scientist movie where the scientist is tragically misguided rather than evil, the sort of role that Boris Karloff did so well. Lugosi shows that he could play such roles extremely well if given the chance. He conveys some real emotion and his performance is quite moving at times.

George Zucco does well and he approaches his role with gusto. John Carradine goes so far over-the-top that he’s off the scale as the shambling idiot Toby who is just a bit too fond of zombie-fied young ladies. Even the lesser supporting players are quite competent.

The focus here is on entertainment. There are numerous movie in-jokes. The pacing is brisk and unlike some Monogram movies this movie is never in danger of becoming dull. And a major plus is the absence of the usual excruciating comic relief.

It has to be emphasised that (contrary to the general opinion) this is not a so-bad-it’s-good movie. It’s very much a B-movie but it’s a good B-movie with a fine cast and it works as an effective little horror flick.

This movie is only available on DVD as a Rifftrax release with one of those tediously and embarrassingly unfunny MST3K-style accompaniments. Luckily the DVD does offer the option of watching the movie without the Rifftrax accompaniment. There’s quite a lot of print damage in parts but otherwise the picture quality is reasonably good.

Voodoo Man is one of the best of Bela Lugosi’s later movies (in fact it probably  is the best). A thoroughly enjoyable horror B-movie that deserves more respect than it’s ever received. Highly recommended.