Friday 28 August 2015

House of Horrors (1946)

House of Horrors was intended by Universal as a starring vehicle for Rondo Hatton, an  actor who suffered from a debilitating condition known as acromegaly. This disease, usually caused by a pituitary tumour, causes severe facial disfigurement. This tragic affliction seemed to make Hatton ideally suited for horror movie stardom but unfortunately medical complications caused his death before the release of the two movies which might have consolidated his stardom. One of these two movies was House of Horrors, released early in 1946.

The movie starts with struggling artist Marcel DeLange (Martin Kosleck) facing another week of deprivation and misery. He was just about to sell one of his statues, until art critic F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) managed to persuade the prospective purchaser that DeLange’s work was utterly worthless. The sale falls through and DeLange, in despair, is about to throw himself in the river when he sees a man struggling in the water. He rescues him. The unnamed man (played by Rondo Hatton) suffers from facial deformities but DeLange doesn’t mind. In DeLange’s tortured mind this man is an outcast like himself, a victim of society’s wickedness.

The artist more or less adopts the man. He wants him to model for his next artistic masterpiece. In the course of conversation DeLange mentions that the reason they are living in abject poverty is the malice of evil art critic F. Holmes Harmon. Soon afterwards the art critic meets with a nasty, and fatal, accident. And it soon appears that such accidents are happening to anyone perceived by DeLange as an enemy.

It’s fairly obvious that DeLange knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t mind. Being an artist he sees himself as a superior being and he thinks it’s only right and proper that anyone who interferes with his glorious artistic career should end up with his spine snapped. If enough art critics are killed his genius will finally be recognised.

There is panic in the city as the spine-snapping killer dubbed The Creeper continues his murderous rampage. The police suspect Stephen Morrow (Robert Lowery), another artist with ample cause to hate F. Holmes Harmon.

Of course there has to be a young glamorous female in the cast. In this case the role is filled by yet another art critic, Joan Medford (Virginia Grey). The police are represented by the wise-cracking skirt-chasing but not very competent Lieutenant Larry Brooks (Bill Goodwin). Joan Medford has found a clue, a sketch of the Creeper, but will she live long enough to do anything with it?

While many of Universal’s 1940s horror offerings are at best marginally related to the horror genre and while this film is structurally closer to being a crime film it does have enough genuine horror elements to qualify as an actual horror movie.

As is the case with even the weakest of Universal’s horror flicks there’s plenty of atmosphere and all the visual trappings of horror that one could ask for. Jean Yarbrough was a competent B-movie director. Universal always had solid technical people working on their B-movies, in this instance the most notable being the legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce.

It’s not a bad story but the principal interest is in the characterisation. This is a movie with two monsters. The Creeper is the obvious monster. He’s almost the kind of vaguely sympathetic monster that so often appears in Universal monster movies although he’s perhaps just a bit too gleefully homicidal to be truly sympathetic. Nonetheless we can see that fate has dealt him a very bad hand and his monstrousness is at least explicable.

Marcel DeLange is more interesting. On one level he is presented as the artistic visionary suffering for his genius at the hands of an uncaring and indeed positively hostile world. On the other hand we have to admit that cynical art critic F. Holmes Harmon is quite correct in his assessment of DeLange’s talent - his only talent is for creating depraved ugliness and in spite of his surface amiability it’s clear that the ugliness of his work reflects the ugliness of his soul. He has a genuine fondness for his cat but he seems to have no real feelings for other human beings. Even his apparent compassion for the Creeper is phony - the Creeper is useful to him but that’s as far as DeLange’s feelings go.

The Creeper at least has the excuse that his behaviour is a result of his deformity and (presumably) the sufferings he has endured as a result. DeLange’s monstrousness is driven by egotism, anger, jealousy and his delusion that his hideous statues are of such towering artistic significance that a human life is of no importance by comparison.

It’s Martin Kosleck’s performance as DeLange that really stands out. It’s a surprisingly subtle performance. He makes us believe at first that DeLange is really a harmless inoffensive and rather gentle man but gradually we come to realise that he is entirely amoral and in fact in his own way more evil than the Creeper. Kosleck played many villains in his career but this remained his favourite rôle.

Robert Lowery and Virginia Grey are perfectly competent while Alan Napier is deliciously nasty as the acid-tongued art critic.

House of Horrors is one of five movies in TCM’s Universal Cult Horror DVD boxed set (the set also includes the Lionel Atwill vehicle The Mad Doctor of Market Street). The transfer is superb and there are at least some token extras.

This is one of the better 1940s Universal horror movies with some genuinely intriguing dimensions to it. Highly recommended.

Saturday 22 August 2015

Breakheart Pass (1975)

Breakheart Pass is an interesting attempt to do something different in the western genre. It’s a murder mystery/thriller in a western setting and it works rather well. It’s also a train thriller and there’s nothing I like better than a mystery thriller set on a train. In this case it’s a very cool 19th century Wild West steam train so it’s even better.

At the time the movie was released (1975) Alistair MacLean was still the hottest thriller writer around. In this instance he wrote the screenplay himself from his own novel. Most of MacLean’s books ended up being filmed and remarkably enough almost all the film adaptations are worth seeing.

In 1975 Charles Bronson was also a very big star so this is quite a big budget movie, and the money was well spent.

The plot is the sort of thing MacLean dearly loved - take a group of people, put them in an isolated place and put a murderer amongst them. Preferably in a place with lots of snow and ice. MacLean loved these kinds of settings and he knew how to derive the full benefit from them. The protagonists are not only faced with danger from within but must also struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment where nature will kill you just as readily as the murderer will. It’s the kind of setting used to great effect in MacLean novels like Night Without End and MacLean movie adaptations like Where Eagles Dare, Bear Island and Ice Station Zebra.

Breakheart Pass really is a train adventure movie. Virtually the entire movie takes place on the train. The train is a US Army on route to remote Fort Humboldt with urgent medical supplies. The fort is being ravaged by a diphtheria epidemic. On board the train is Governor Richard Fairchild (Richard Crenna), his girlfriend Marica (Jill Ireland), Dr Molyneux (David Huddleston), a clergyman and a detachment of soldiers under Major Claremont (Ed Lauter). When the train stops at a frontier outpost to take on water it acquires two more passengers. US Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) has just taken escaped murderer John Deakin (Charles Bronson) into custody and intends to take him to Fort Humboldt.

It doesn’t take long before the passengers make the unpleasant discovery that there is a murderer aboard the train. You might think Deakin would be the prime suspect but in fact he’s one of the few people on the train who cannot possibly be the killer - he has an alibi for the first murder. Deakin also becomes rather important when Dr Molyneux is removed from the scene - Deakin is a doctor himself and he’s now their only doctor and thus the only hope for the beleaguered garrison of Fort Humboldt.

There will be further murders. There’s not much anybody can do about it. They can’t turn back - they’re on an emergency medical mission. They can’t make contact with the outside world since the telegraph lines are mysteriously down. There are no towns at all out here. They just have to keep going until they reach the fort. And this is an Alistair MacLean  world of snow and ice - anybody who leaves the train could not survive.

It’s a fine premise for a mystery thriller and it’s expertly executed by director Tom Gries with some excellent action set-pieces. A major bonus is Lucien Ballard’s glorious cinematography. The train itself looks wonderful and the scenery is spectacular. Nothing looks better than a Wild West steam train crossing a gorge spanned by a trestle bridge and as luck would have it there seem to be an amazing number of such gorges on the route to Fort Humboldt.

Bronson is in splendid form as the enigmatic Deakin. Bronson has the required tough guy charisma in spades and he has the subtlety to pull off this role - he never overplays but it’s always obvious that there is a lot more to this character than meets the eye. He gets solid support from the rest of the cast but this is Bronson’s film and he dominates it from start to finish.

Don’t bother looking too hard for messages or social comment or hidden meanings in this movie - Alistair MacLean’s success was based on his ability to deliver finely crafted pure entertainment and that’s what this movie provides. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The old MGM DVD (the one I watched) provides a pretty satisfactory anamorphic transfer. There’s now a Blu-Ray release and keen western fans (and Bronson fans) will probably want to go for that.

Breakheart Pass is a hugely enjoyable mix of action, adventure, suspense and mystery. It has Charles Bronson in fine form. It looks magnificent. What’s not to like? Highly recommended.

Thursday 20 August 2015

reviews of relevance from my classic movie blog

Here are links to some reviews I’ve posted at my classic movies blog that might also be of interest to readers of this blog.

First up are several heist/caper movies:

The League of Gentlemen (1960), one of the very first of the modern style of cynical tongue-in-cheek heist films.

Ocean’s Eleven (1960), the first of the great American caper films (and also the ultimate Rat Pack movie).

Gambit (1966), a sparkling lighthearted but very clever heist movie with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine.

Also a couple of interesting spy films:

Ring of Spies (1964), a nice little low-key British movie based on a real-life spy ring.

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937), one of the best (and most stylish) of the 30s Bulldog Drummond films.

And a fine old-fashioned adventure romp:

Timbuktu (1958), directed by the great Jacques Tourneur and starring Victor Mature and Yvonne de Carlo.

Sunday 16 August 2015

The Liquidator (1965)

The Liquidator is yet another 1960s spy spoof movie, this one being a British production. The problem with spy spoofs was to get the tone right. The Matt Helm and Derek Flint movies were straight-out spoofs which worked pretty well. Another equally valid option was to take the slightly tongue-in-cheek flavour of the Bond movies and push things just a little further.

The Liquidator shows what happens when the tone isn’t quite right. It’s not sure if it wants to aim for slapstick or sophisticated banter and at times it seems to be tempted to take a more serious line. The Bond movies managed to combine the tongue-in-cheek approach with decent spy movie plots and plenty of spectacular action. The Liquidator just doesn’t have enough action to succeed on that level. It’s still fairly entertaining although it has to be counted as more of a near miss than an actual hit.

The basic premise really would have lent itself very well to a black comedy approach but this avenue is never really explored.

During the war Sergeant Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) had saved the life of British intelligence agent Major Mostyn (Trevor Howard). Flash forward twenty years and Major Mostyn is now Colonel Mostyn, a senior officer in the Security Organisation. Colonel Mostyn and his boss (played by Wilfred Hyde-White) have a problem. There have been so many security leaks and so many spy scandals that their jobs are on the line. They have a rough idea who the potential security risks are but they can’t do anything until they have actual evidence and by that time it’s too late - there’s yet another spy scandal for the press to make a fuss about. That’s the trouble with being the good guys - you have to worry about annoying details like evidence and the legal rights of suspects. It would be so much easier just to have all the potential security risks killed quietly and without fuss. In fact the more the Chief and Colonel Mostyn think about it the better that idea sounds. Why not employ someone to do just that? Unofficially of course.

Mostyn now remembers that young tank sergeant who saved his life during the war. He does a bit of digging into the past of Boysie Oakes and he likes what he discovers. Quite a few of Boysie’s more irritating and inconvenient acquaintances seem to have met with fatal accidents. Colonel Mostyn draws the obvious conclusion - that Oakes is a cold-blooded and efficient murderer and is therefore just the man he’s looking for. He recruits Oakes as an ultra top secret assassin.

There’s only one problem. Boysie is not a cold-blooded killer. He’s a good-natured but rather clumsy fellow, so clumsy that he may well have been responsible for a few accidents, but Boysie is incapable of hurting a fly intentionally. Boysie doesn’t point out Mostyn’s error because he has no idea what he has actually been recruited to do until it’s too late.

Boysie is now a secret agent. He’s been set up in a luxury London flat, provided with a sleek sports car, he’s getting paid lots of money and it seems like a job that involves very little actual work. This should provide plenty of free time for Boysie to do the only thing he’s really good at - chasing women. It all seems like splendid fun. Until he discovers that his job is to kill people. That’s one thing Boysie just cannot do. It’s an awkward situation but Boysie discovers a solution - he pays a professional hitman to do the killing for him.

Of course we know that eventually Boysie will find himself having to play secret agent for real. And we know that he’s likely to get himself in a good deal of trouble.

Rod Taylor is reasonably well cast. He has the slightly bumbling amiability that the role demands. Trevor Howard is as reliable as ever. Jill St John is fine as Mostyn’s secretary (and the object of Boysie’s lust). Eric Sykes was one of the great English comedians but he was also quite capable in straight dramatic roles and he does very well as hitman Griffen. He’s the most interesting character in the film and should have been given a lot more screen time. What stands out about the supporting cast is that it’s composed overwhelmingly of great character actors who were particularly good at comedy - actors like John le Mesurier, Derek Nimmo, Eric Sykes and David Tomlinson. And yet they’re given remarkably few opportunities to display those gifts.

Peter Yeldham’s screenplay certainly seems to be the weak link here. 

The movie was directed by Jack Cardiff, a superlative cinematographer who directed a handful of features including Dark of the Sun (in which Rod Taylor gives his career-best performance). Cardiff’s movies always look good and this is no exception. One can’t help feeling though that maybe Cardiff wasn’t the right choice for a spy spoof.

Aviation geeks will be excited by the prominent part played by a very cool Vickers Valiant bomber.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a generally good anamorphic transfer.

The Liquidator is harmless and reasonably enjoyable but with less sexual innuendo and more black comedy it could have been considerably better. Worth a look for hardcore spy spoof fans and spy movie completists.

Monday 10 August 2015

The Brain Eaters (1958)

The Brain Eaters is a 1958 AIP science fiction/horror release based on Robert A. Heinlein’s classic paranoia novel The Puppet Masters. No-one at AIP bothered to get Heinlein’s permission and he promptly sued them and won. He received $5,000 and a promise his name would not be used on the credits since he hated the movie. Heinlein may have been right in feeling this was not much of a movie but like so many of AIP’s offerings it’s actually quite a bit of fun.

The small town of Riverdale Illinois is the scene of several murders after the landing of a mysterious spaceship. The spaceship, like all good 50s science fiction movie spaceships, is impervious to heat, explosive and in fact it’s impervious to just about everything. It does however have a circular entrance but when scientist Dr Paul Kettering (Ed Nelson) crawls inside to investigate he finds that the passageway just spirals around and comes back out at the same place.

The mayor of Riverdale is an early victim. He goes crazy and a sheriff’s deputy shoots him. The autopsy reveals something rather disturbing - something very strange affixed to the back of his neck. As well will learn later it’s a kind of parasite. We assume it’s from the spaceship but actually the story is a bit more complicated (and cleverer) than that.

The parasite turns a person into a kind of zombie and just as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers the scary bit is that these zombies seem quite normal. They could be anywhere!

Senator Walter K. Powers (Cornelius Keefe) has arrived on the scene determined to debunk the whole affair but he soon realises the spaceship scare is no hoax. He and Dr Kettering must find a way to defeat the parasites but although they recruit a few allies from the townspeople it’s soon apparent that the parasites have already taken over a lot of people so no-one can really be trusted.

The plot more or less follows the standard pattern for these kinds of “invaders amongst us” movies although it does slip in a couple of interesting twists. The basic idea was clearly lifted from Heinlein’s novel but the movie’s plot differs quite a bit from that of the book.

The big question is - what do the parasites want? The answer to that is not going to surprise anyone familiar with 50s American sci-fi.

Ed Nelson is quite adequate as the hero. Some of the supporting actors aren’t too great but they’re no worse than you expect in a low-budget movie. Look out for Leonard Nimoy in a small part. You won’t recognise him but you should recognise the voice.

The special effects are about as good as could be managed on the very very tight budget. The spaceship is quite interesting with its spiralling passageway. The sets are basic and there was certainly no money for spectacular set-pieces although the climactic scenes around the spaceship are fairly well done.

Bruno VeSota had a long career as a character actor and a much shorter one as a director. He did however helm one excellent little low-budget film noir, Female Jungle, in 1955. He obviously decided that The Brain Eaters was the type of film that would benefit from copious use of Dutch angles, a sometimes very effective technique that he does at times go rather overboard with. VeSota was however a competent director and within the limitations of the very very small budget he had to work with he does a fine job and he manages to pull off some effectively creepy and scary moments.

This is a movie that is obviously going to be compared to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The premise is very similar and the atmosphere of paranoia is almost identical. Viewers do need to bear in mind that Don Siegel was a great director and had a bit more money to play around with. VeSota is no in the Siegel class but he gives it his best shot and he certainly doesn’t disgrace himself.

The Brain Eaters is available on DVD in Region 2 in the Arkoff Film Library series from DVD Rights. It’s barebones but the transfer is good.

The Brain Eaters is the sort of movie that trendy snarky film buffs love to rubbish but it’s actually not a bad little movie. It has a decent premise, it has a certain amount of atmosphere, it’s quite well-made and it has its creepy moments. Considering the minuscule budget it’s an entertaining and fairly effective sci-fi/horror tale and there’s no reason why fans of 50s sci-fi should not thoroughly enjoy it. Recommended.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Tomorrow at Seven (1933)

The popularity of Old Dark House movie may seem slightly puzzling to modern audiences but there’s no question that  they enjoyed immense success in the 1930s. Tomorrow at Seven is a rather good example of the breed.

The formula for this genre was set very early. A group of people would be isolated in a decaying rather gothic old house and something would happen to ensure that their isolation fro the outside world was complete. A murder, or more usually a series of murders, would take place. There would be hints of the supernatural, or at the very least there would be hints of strange diabolical machinations behind the scenes. There would be a dash of romance and very generous helpings of comedy. From today’s perspective the formula might seem as creaky as the old dark houses themselves but when executed well such films can actually be highly enjoyable. Tomorrow at Seven is definitely well executed.

A mysterious figure known only as the Black Ace has been responsible for a number of daring murders. He always warns the victims of their fate in advance. Detective novelist Neil Broderick (Chester Morris) is planning a book on the murders and since Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson) supposedly knows more than anyone else about the Black Ace’s activities he is anxious to get in touch with him. On the train to Chicago he meets Martha Winters (Vivienne Osborne), the daughter of Drake’s secretary Austin Winters (Grant Mitchell).

When Drake receives the customary warning from the Black Ace he decides to head for his retreat deep in Louisiana. Drake, Winters and his daughter, Neil Broderick and two hardbitten but delightfully inept Chicago cops (played by Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh) set off for Louisiana by air. The first murder (in a slight departure from the usual formula) takes place in the air. On arrival at Drake’s remote Louisiana house the classic Old Dark House setup is complete. One of the people on the plane had to have been the murderer and now they are all in the obligatory decaying mansion in the bayous, and of course the telephone lines get cut and the co-pilot decamps with the aircraft. They are trapped in the house and one of them is a crazed killer!

Every Old Dark House movie cliché that you could wish for is here. That’s what makes this movie so much fun - it operates strictly within the conventions of its genre. Once you’re familiar with those conventions you know what to expect and much of the viewer’s pleasure comes from anticipation. It’s like a ghost train ride at a carnival.

Director Ray Enright had a lengthy if not dazzling career. He gets the job done in his customary workmanlike fashion and he keeps the pacing nice and taut. He’d started his career as an editor and when editors turn to directing they have the advantage of understanding that pacing is everything. The original screenplay by the extraordinarily prolific Ralph Spence contains all the necessary formula ingredients and as a bonus it’s quite witty.

Chester Morris was quite a big star in the early 30s. By the 40s he’d been relegated to B-movies but was rarely out of work. He had the kind of looks that allowed him to play tough guys or romantic heroes with equal facility and while he was no great shakes as an actor he was generally fairly reliable in not-too-demanding roles such as this. Vivienne Osborne was a striking actress who’d been successful in the silent era. Her career had faded by the early 40s which was unfortunate since she had a very definite screen presence and gave a superbly creepy performance in the excellent and underrated Supernatural (1933), a movie that can be considered a sort of second cousin to the Old Dark House movies.

Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as the wise-cracking big city cops provide the comic relief and they have one huge advantage over the usual run of comic relief actors - they are genuinely funny. They’re provided with decent dialogue as well so the comic relief in this movie actually enhances it.

The other cast members are solid enough.

The movie was clearly shot entirely in the studio on a decidedly limited budget but that was the film-making style of the early 30s and in fact that was one of the reasons Hollywood loved Old Dark House movies so much - the studio-bound feel adds to the atmosphere.

Alpha Video’s DVD release is even worse than their usual standard. The picture quality is quite acceptable but sound quality is atrocious. The dialogue can be understood but the amount of crackling and hissing can get quite distracting. On the other hand it is, like so much of Alpha Video’s catalogue, a movie that would otherwise be just about impossible to find and this one is entertaining enough to be worth grabbing despite the sound problems.

Tomorrow at Seven ticks all the right boxes for fans of this genre. Highly recommended.