Sunday 27 October 2013

Reform School Girl (1957)

The title of AIP’s Reform School Girl (1957) gives you a pretty good indication of  what to expect although fans of the juvenile delinquent film genre may find this one a bit on the tame side. In fact they may find it very much on the tame side.

Seventeen-year-old Donna Price (Gloria Castillo) lives with her aunt and uncle and it’s not a happy life. The uncle keeps making passes at her. Then a double date goes badly wrong for her. Her date, Vince (Edd Byrnes), beats up her uncle and the teenage foursome then head off in a car Vince has stolen. Vince is a big man, in his own mind at least. He thinks he’s a tough guy and tough guys don’t worry about speed limits. Predictably he runs across a local cop who does bother about speed limits, there is a chase and a man is killed. Vince’s tough guy act might not convince most people but it’s enough to intimidate a seventeen-year-old girl. Donna refuses to squeal on Vince (who took off before the police arrived) and as a result she is sent to reform school.

The Hastings School for Girls is full of what 1950s audiences would consider to be tough cookies. Donna does her best to put on a tough act herself but basically she’s just confused and suspicious.

Then along comes idealistic young teacher David Lindsay (Ross Ford). Idealistic young teachers are bad enough but Lindsay is also a psychologist. Being a psychologist it goes without saying that his understanding of human behaviour is basically zero. Lindsay is not merely hopelessly naïve, he is also a bleeding heart, in a big way. He is convinced that the girls need to be treated with kindness and respect. Not surprisingly the girls despise him immediately.

Working in the school’s vegetable garden Donna makes the acquaintance of a local boy, Jackie Dodd (Ralph Reed). This boy arranges a double date for Donna and one of the other girls, Ruth (Jan Englund). How do you arrange a date with girls confined in a reform school? That’s easy. Jackie knows a way to get over the fence.

Mr Lindsay spots Donna heading off to meet Jackie at ten o’clock that night and it gives him an idea. Maybe having dates would be good for the girls? Why not organise a dance for the girls and some of the local girls? The school’s headmistress Mrs Trimble is understandably sceptical but Mr Lindsay convinces her that it would work if it was properly supervised and if the boys were the right sorts of boys. And that should be no problem because naturally the respectable parents of nice boys will be absolutely thrilled by the idea of their sons socialising with reform school trash. The 50s was the beginning of the Age of the Bleeding Heart and Mr Lindsay gets his way.

Things seems to be looking up for Donna but Vince is about to throw a spanner in the works. He’s getting increasingly jumpy, fearing that the police may be about to nab him for the hit-and-run killing. He figures that since the only witness was Donna it might be a good idea to do something about shutting her up for good. His first plan is to make use of one of the girls in the reform school, a girl who was sweet on him for a while, to make Donna appear to be a stool pigeon. That way the other girls will take care of his problem for him.

That plan sets up the sorts of cat-fights that the audience for this type of film would have relished and it does liven up the action for a while at least. When Vince decides to adopt a more direct approach to his problem the stage is set for the exciting climax, which sadly proves to be conspicuously lacking in actual excitement.

Writer-director Edward Bernds had an extremely prolific career in B-movies. He does a competent job here but the story really needed a bit more spice. If you’re going to do a juvenile delinquent movie you might as well make it as sleazy and as outrageously trashy as you can and this one is a bit lacking in both sleaze and trash value.

Gloria Castillo does a decent job as Donna. Edd Byrnes manages to make Vince very creepy and to emphasise the basic cowardice under his tough guy exterior. Ross Ford can’t do anything with the character of Mr Lindsay - he’s just too dull, too earnest, too dedicated, too caring and just generally too irritatingly perfect.

The Region 1 DVD release is barebones but perfectly acceptable.

Reform School Girl is mildly entertaining but it certainly isn’t one of the better 50s juvenile delinquent movies. Worth a rental if you’re a JD movie completist.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

The team of producer John Dark, director Kevin Connor and actor Doug McClure was responsible for Amicus’s very successful 1970s trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, The Land that Time Forgot, The People that Time Forgot and At the Earth’s Core. This team combined yet again in 1978 to bring us Warlords of Atlantis, although this time it was not an Amicus production nor was it an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation. It does have a rather similar feel to the three earlier movies, although with a few key differences, and in its own way it’s just as much fun

The early sequences of the movie have a very decided feel that would today be described as steampunk. It is 1896 and an ambitious expedition is setting out (on a marvellous steam yacht), their destination - the bottom of the sea!

Professor Aitken (Donald Bisset) is the driving force behind the expedition and he is the one putting up the money. American inventor Greg Collinson (Doug McClure) has designed a rather nifty diving bell. He and the professor’s son Charles (Peter Gilmore) will be the ones making the descent. What Collinson has not been told is the real purpose of the expedition. It is not merely to explore the sea floor. Professor Collinson hopes to find the underwater city of Atlantis. The fact that the professor is an archaeologist probably should have given Collinson the clue that the intention is to find more than just interesting species of fish.

They soon have a remarkable stroke of what seems like good luck but turns out to be very bad luck. They discover an impressive golden statue. This is unfortunate because the crew of the yacht Texas Rose are thoroughly unreliable and are soon infected with gold fever. This is about to cause very serious problems when an even bigger problem comes along - a very large and very unfriendly octopus. When I say very large I mean the octopus is rather bigger than the Texas Rose, and when I say very unfriendly I mean the octopus intends to have both the steam yacht and its crew for lunch. In fact their fate turns out to be less immediately fatal but every bit as disturbing and they find themselves in Atlantis.

At this point the movie takes a rather unexpected turn in a very science fictional direction. The Atlanteans are not an ancient Earth civilisation. They are aliens from outer space. They were stranded on Earth aeons ago and their intention is to leave this planet and find their destiny once more among the stars. Unfortunately in order to achieve this destiny they will have to shape the destiny of Earth, and shape it in a very destructive way.

These alien Atlanteans have various paranormal powers and claim to be incredibly advanced although strangely enough the only weapons they have with which to defend themselves from the incessant attack of an unpleasant array of monsters are muzzle-loading cannons and rifles captured from the inhabitants of the upper world (in other words captured from us).

The Atlanteans have plans for the unlucky crew of the Texas Rose and they have very special plans for Charles Aitken. There’s more at stake than just survival - the future of Earth hangs in the balance. Fortunately the aliens have no idea that they’re up against Doug McClure.

These were the days when special effects meant stop-motion animation, miniatures and matte paintings rather than CGI. These were also the days when movie-makers were not dismayed by limited budgets. They were quite willing to tackle very ambitious projects such as this with seriously limited budgets and more often than you’d expect the final results were quite satisfactory. This movie being a definite case in point. Underwater action, vast underwater cities, battle scenes and monsters (lots of monsters) are among the treats in store for the viewer and by and large they look pretty good.

Peter Gilmore makes a fine secondary hero. Doug McClure is, well he’s Doug McClure. You know what to expect and you won’t be disappointed. Look out for Cyd Charisse as an alien.

By this stage Kevin Connor definitely knew what he was doing with a picture like this. The aim is entertainment and Connor keeps it coming. He wasn’t going to let the low budget bother him and there’s no reason why the audience should either. This movie takes its story just seriously enough. In fact the movie strikes the perfect balance in every department. It throws in a few interesting ideas but never lets them bog the story down.

Studiocanal’s Region 2 DVD offers a reasonable if not outstanding anamorphic transfer without any extras.

The steampunk background is a delight and overall Warlords of Atlantis is splendid entertainment that can be recommended without any reservations.

Saturday 12 October 2013

The Strange Door (1951)

The Strange Door was released by Universal in 1951 and with Boris Karloff as one of the featured stars you might assume this is going to be a horror movie. It isn’t, well not really. It’s more of a gothic adventure movie with just a dash of swashbuckling and just enough horror to spice the dish. Whatever genre it belongs to it’s a highly entertaining little movie.

This production is included in Universal’s Boris Karloff Franchise Collection although as we will see Karloff is not the star.

Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) is a young nobleman in 18th century France and he’s a bit of a scoundrel. In fact he’s such a ne'er-do-well that his father has disinherited him. He’s the perfect choice for a dastardly plan that the wicked Sire Alain de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) has been cooking up. Denis finds himself set up as a murderer and thus has no choice but to comply with de Maletroit’s scheme. Just to make sure de Maletroit has him kidnapped and imprisoned. The plan is to marry him off to de Maletroit’s niece Blanche (Sally Forrest). At this stage we don’t know exactly what the ultimate object of the scheme is but we’re in no doubt that it’s suitably villainous.

Denis might be a wastrel and a drunkard and an all-round cad but he’s not totally evil. In fact he’s not evil at all. He’s simply young, impetuous and reckless but now that he learns he is to be part of a plot that may endanger both the life and the honour of a charming young lady he suddenly discovers his chivalrous side. He might be wild and irresponsible but he is still a gentleman, and blood will out. He had never imagined himself as a hero but since the rôle is forced upon him he will do the best he can.

The Sire de Maletroit is surrounded by a rather vicious bunch of henchman, the most notable being Corbeau (William Cottrell) and Talon (Michael Pate). His château incorporates all the usual features of a feudal dwelling place including a dungeon and torture chamber which de Maletroit puts to good and frequent use. He has a mysterious prisoner locked up in the dungeon. The servant Voltan (Boris Karloff) knows the secret of the prisoner in the dungeon; in fact Voltan knows a number of secrets.

Denis and Blanche hate each other at first sight. Blanche had hoped to marry a gallant young officer and she considers Denis to be no better than de Maletroit’s ruffians. In time they will both come to revise the hasty opinions they have formed of each other. If they are to foil de Maletroit’s scheme they will need to work together and they will need help, help which comes from an unexpected ally. It all leads up to a splendidly melodramatic finale.

Joseph Pevney is the man in the director’s chair and he handles matters with considerable efficiency. Pevney had the sort of career typical of the honest journeyman director, making a lot of B-features and ending up doing a great deal of television work. A few years after this movie he helmed the very underrated Joan Crawford film noir Female on the Beach. Jerry Sackheim’s screenplay is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson (whose stories often very entertainingly combine gothic and adventure elements).

Boris Karloff has only a supporting part and although he is very good he is not really given the opportunity to stretch his acting wings. The real star is Charles Laughton and he’s in magnificent form. Laughton always relished this kind of part and he makes de Maletroit an outrageously over-the-top melodrama villain. Laughton in full flight was always a joy to watch and he doesn’t hold back.

Richard Stapley (or Richard Wyler as he was also known) makes a fine hero, being equally convincing as the dissipated rake of the first half of the film and the reluctant romantic hero of the second half. Sally Forrest is adequate if rather anaemic. Australian character actor Michael Pate plays a villain as usual, and plays him well.

The movie has the distinctly gothic atmosphere you expect from Universal at this period. They’d been making gothic movies for twenty years by this time and they certainly knew how to do the thing properly. Universal really had no equal when it came to impressively gothic visuals in black-and-white. The sets and costumes are up to their usual high standards as well.

One might take issue with the inclusion of a movie like this in Universal’s Boris Karloff Franchise Collection since Karloff is only a supporting player but the set does give us a chance to see some interesting movies not previously available on DVD. If the other movies are of similar standard to this one then I’ll certainly be well satisfied. There are no extras but the transfer is superb.

The Strange Door is sheer unadulterated fun from beginning to end and can safely be given a very enthusiastic recommendation.

Friday 4 October 2013

The Monkey's Paw (1948)

The Monkey's Paw is a classic short story by W. W. Jacobs that will be familiar  to anyone with even a passing interest in horror stories. The 1948 British movie of the same name changes most of the details but it retains the essential core of the story. While it’s deservedly a classic story there are very sound reasons why the movie adaptation was a bad idea from the start. We’ll get to those reasons later.

The story is very simple. The monkey’s paw is a talisman capable of granting three wishes, but if you do make a wish you’ll live to regret it. Or possibly you won’t live. It’s the old “be careful what you wish for” idea.

A dealer in antiques and curios (played by Sydney Taffler) comes across the monkey’s paw in an antique shop. The owner of the shop is reluctant to sell this item, explaining that it can bring only disaster. But the dealer is determined to have it, reasoning that curios with grim stories attached to them will fetch high prices from a certain type of collector.

The monkey’s paw is eventually purchased by Mr Trelawne (Milton Rosmer), a respectable middle-aged shop owner in Cornwall. He has his strong suspicious that making use of the three wishes might be a very unwise thing to do. When he finds himself heavily in debt to his bookmaker he gives in to the temptation to use the paw to get him out of this difficulty. The result of this first wish will lead Trelawne inevitably to the second and truly fateful wish.

Before this happens we see the consequences for a previous possessor of the paw. Kelly, a loquacious but good-natured Irishman and a crony of Trelawne’s, has had some previous connection to the monkey’s paw and knows something of its history.

This unnecessary subplot brings us to the crux of the problem. It’s in the nature of this story that it has to be kept short. It cannot be successfully padded out and any attempt to do so will merely dissipate the impact of the ending. That’s exactly what happens here, and even at a very modest 64 minutes this movie seems rambling and very slow.

A further problem is that the climactic moment of horror is not shown. The makers of the film had their reasons for this. The script (by Norman Lee and Barbara Toy) tries to add its own twist to Jacobs’ twist and this requires the audience not to see the moment of horror. Ordinarily I’m a strong believer in the principle that the most effective horror is the horror we don’t see but merely imagine for ourselves but in this case since the movie relies entirely on the shock ending the viewer is likely to feel a bit cheated.

Norman Lee directed the movie as well as collaborating on the screenplay. Lee made a fairly significant number of second-string movies and does a competent job although this movie really would have benefited from a bit more effort being put into building the atmosphere and the suspense. When you’ve only got one real shock moment in a horror movie you need to build up the audience’s expectations and create the right mood of unease and this movie fails to do these things successfully. As a result it falls rather flat.

Milton Rosmer and Megs Jenkins as Mr and Mrs Trelawne are quite adequate, as is Eric Micklewood as their son Tom. Michael Martin Harvey landed the most colourful role as Kelly who acts as both comic relief and as the crucial character who knows what the outcome will be and predicts it but no-one will listen.

Renown have released this movie on DVD in Region 2 as half of a one-disc two-movie pack, paired with The House in Marsh Road (which is a considerably better movie). The transfers are adequate given the relative obscurity of these movies and it’s a fairly reasonable value-for-money deal.

The Monkey's Paw would have worked a lot better as a half-hour television episode or as a segment of an anthology movie (and it was in fact done fairly well in one of Amicus’s horror anthology movies). There’s just not enough genuine content to make for a successful feature film. It would not be worth buying on its own but since it’s worth buying the DVD to see The House in Marsh Road it’s possibly worth a look on a night when there’s absolutely nothing on the telly and you’re really desperate for entertainment. Generally speaking a rather disappointing British horror movie.