Sunday 27 December 2015

Black Dragons (1942)

Black Dragons, released in 1942, was the third of Bela Lugosi’s Monogram pictures produced by Sam Katzman and it’s a slightly unusual spy thriller with (of course) some sinister overtones. And it gives Lugosi the chance to play dual roles.

The story deals with a ring of Japanese Fifth Columnists in the US just after the outbreak of war. They’re not actually Japanese - they’re American traitors working for Japan. In 1942 this was just the sort of thing audiences would have gone for, Fifth Columnists being a popular subject in low-budget potboilers at the time.

Lugosi plays Dr Colomb, a mysterious figure who seems to be taking an interest in this subversive organisation, although it’s not a sympathetic interest. The members of the espionage ring start getting bumped off one by one with a Japanese dagger left at the scene of each murder.

Dr Colomb has moved himself into the home of a Dr Saunders. The doctor’s niece Alice (Joan Barclay)  isn’t quite sure what to make of him. She’s a bit frightened of him but not as frightened as you might expect.

All the murder victims were guests at a dinner party held at Dr Saunders’ home, the purpose dinner party being to advance the plans of the Fifth Columnists to wreck the US war effort. Many of their plans focus on fomenting strikes to disrupt war production although out-and-sabotage is also on the agenda.

Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) is a handsome young US counter-espionage agent assigned to investigate the case, his method being to romance Alice Saunders in order to find out exactly what is happening at the home of Dr Saunders.

Lugosi had made a big impact in White Zombie in 1932 with extreme close-ups of his eyes being used to emphasise his hypnotic powers. A similar (although slightly less effective) technique is used here. Sinister hypnotic powers were something that Lugosi was supremely good at suggesting. He also manages to convey a somewhat ambiguous tone. We assume that (being Lugosi) he’s the villain but he appears to be extreme hostility to the other villains. He’s in fine form, which is just as well since he has to carry the movie pretty much single-handedly.

The other cast members range from adequate to embarrassingly wooden although Joan Barclay isn’t too bad.

Director William Nigh was an incredibly prolific B-movie director, uninspired but competent enough and he at least keeps the pacing pleasingly taut. Writer Harvey Gates had a career that followed much the same pattern - prolific but without notable distinction. His screenplay does at least have quite a few interesting touches.

The plot takes a definite turn towards the outrageous in the latter part of the film as the unexpected truth is revealed about the spy ring, and about Dr Colomb.

The movie tries hard to convey an atmosphere of breathless excitement and succeeds reasonably well, within its B-movie limitations.

This movie is in the public domain. The Elstree Hill DVD offers a transfer that is unimpressive but watchable (and marginally better than Alpha Video standards). The sound is the big problem - it’s uneven and muffled. Alpha Video have also released this one. Black Dragons might not be a great film but it’s interesting enough to deserve better treatment on DVD.

Black Dragons is an enjoyable espionage-themed potboiler with a few definite touches of horror. If you’re a fan of sinister hypnotist movies or a Lugosi fan, or even just a fan of slightly offbeat 1940s spy B-movies, it’s worth a look. Highly recommended. 

Friday 25 December 2015

Happy Christmas everyone

Just wishing everyone a Happy Christmas.

And here's Joan Collins, getting into the spirit of Christmas.

Friday 18 December 2015

The House of Fear (1944)

The House of Fear (also known as Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear) was released in 1944 and was the eighth of the Universal movies starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson. 

It was based (albeit very loosely indeed) on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Five Orange Pips

It has a good deal of very effectively contrived gothic atmosphere and benefits from some very stylish (by B-movie standards) directing.

It is not by any means the best of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies but it is an above-average entry in the cycle and it provides wonderful entertainment. 

You can read my full review at Classic Movie Ramblings.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars, released in 1952, is one of the more notorious American science fiction films of the 50s. Almost all American movies of that era that took what could be interpreted as an anti-communist line have over the past few decades been subjected to ridicule and dismissed as crude propaganda. Red Planet Mars has suffered in this respect more than most and it’s really quite unfair. 

If such a movie were also to deal with religious themes and to treat those themes seriously then as you can imagine that movie would be the subject of even greater derision. Such a movie is Red Planet Mars.

Red Planet Mars is an ambitious and interesting film that deals with big ideas. There’s nothing wrong with science fiction that simply offers entertainment but the genre has always been at its best when it tackles big ideas. And this movie tackles very big ideas.

This is a first contact movie. A young American scientist, Dr Chris Cronyn (Peter Graves), has received radio signals from Mars. He has been broadcasting messages to Mars and now he is receiving replies. The replies are simply his own messages repeated back to him. This could of course be explained as some kind of natural phenomenon. The signals might simply be bounced back to him. There is however an objection to that theory. The signals take just over the minutes to reach Mars. If they were being bounced back he should be receiving them just over six minutes after transmitting them. But there is an unexplained time delay. Someone or something is actively transmitting the replies.

This is all very interesting from a scientific point of view but things are about to get a good deal more interesting. Suddenly the replies are more than just repeats of Dr Cronyn’s own messages. He really has made contact with an alien civilisation.

What he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one working in this area. He has a rival. Dr Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof) is a brilliant German scientist who was imprisoned after the war for war crimes. After being released he found employment behind the Iron Curtain. Dr Calder was in fact the man who invented the hydrogen valve which made it possible to send messages to Mars. The US government took his invention after the war and Dr Cronyn used it to build his own transmitter. Calder feels, reasonably enough from his point of view, that his invention was stolen from him. For this he hates the Americans. He hates the Soviets as well, having found that they are not exactly ideal employers. Calder has built a transmitter as well. He could use it to try to contact Mars himself, but he has a better idea, an idea that will have fateful consequences.

Dr Cronyn’s wife Linda (Andrea King) is a Christian and she’s not at all convinced that contacting Mars is a good idea. She’s not sure why the idea worries her, it’s basically a case of, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Chris Cronyn is certain that first contact with an alien civilisation can only be a good thing. If the Martians are more scientifically advanced than we are we could learn so much from them that it would usher in a golden age of progress. It turns out that things are not so simple. Sudden exposure to advanced technology causes economic chaos. The western world faces ruin. This pleases Dr Calder’s communist paymasters. It causes panic in Washington. The Pentagon’s predictable reaction to crisis is to want a start a nuclear war. It’s intriguing that in a supposedly anti-communist movie it’s the Americans who are the ones contemplating the destruction of all life on Earth.

The next messages from Mars are very different. They are religious in content and their effects are dramatic. They spark a worldwide religious revival. But this movie still has several dramatic plot twists up its sleeve which lead to a somewhat unexpected shock ending.

To see this movie as anti-communist propaganda is to misunderstand it completely. It’s as much an indictment of the materialism and hedonism and spiritual nihilism of capitalist society as it is an indictment of the brutality and inhumanity of communism. If it’s propaganda it’s religious rather than political propaganda and it’s more complex than one expects propaganda to be.

There’s some fun technobabble and some amusing gadgetry but this is the science fiction of ideas rather than the science fiction of rayguns and starships. There’s very little in the way of special effects since the story doesn’t require such things.

The script was co-written by John L. Balderston and Anthony Veiller from a play by Balderston and John Hoare. Balderston is best known for his stage adaptation of Dracula, which formed the basis for the classic 1931 Dracula movie. He wrote a number of outstanding screenplays, mostly but by no means exclusively in the horror genre. This seems to have been his only foray into science fiction, which might explain why it’s so  untypical of 50s sci-fi movies.

Peter Graves is a serviceable hero and Andrea King is reasonably good in a tricky role - LInda Cronyn could easily have become an irritatingly pious character but she mostly avoids that pitfall. Herbert Berghof gets the plum role as the evil Nazi mad scientist and he (quite rightly) goes deliciously over-the-top with it. 

Cheezy Flicks have established a reputation for releasing interesting hard-to-find movies in pretty terrible transfers. In this case the transfer is not too bad. 

Red Planet Mars is one of the few science fiction movies to attempt to explore in depth the economic, social, political and religious consequences of first contact with an alien civilisation. The conclusions it draws may be deeply unfashionable today but that makes them all the more interesting and provocative. No-one today would dare to make a movie such as this. This is not cheesy low-budget drive-in fodder. It’s an ambitious movie made on a limited budget that succeeds in its aims surprisingly well (even if some modern viewers will not approve of those aims). While you’re likely to either love it or loathe it it’s worth a look. Highly recommended simply for being It’s intriguingly different.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

Secret of the Blue Room is a low-budget Universal feature from 1933, and basically it’s a mystery tale with some hints of horror. It’s another variation on the Old Dark House theme that was insanely popular at the time.

It begins with a small party thrown by Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of his daughter Irene (Gloria Stuart). Also present are Captain Walter Brink (Paul Lukacs), reporter Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens) and young Thomas Brandt (William Janney). These three are all rivals for Irene’s affections. The conversation eventually turns to ghosts and Robert is reluctantly persuaded to tell the story of the haunted Blue Room in Castle Helldorf. Twenty years earlier Robert’s sister met her death in this room in mysterious circumstances. Two more unexplained deaths followed shortly afterwards. In all three cases the victim died at precisely one o’clock in the morning. Not surprisingly the room is no longer used and is kept locked. 

Thomas suggests a challenge. He, Frank and Walter will each spend a night in the Blue Room as a test of courage. His motive in proposing this idea is obviously to impress Irene. He further proposes that he should be the first to sleep in the Blue Room.

You will not be surprised to hear that this challenge has unfortunate consequences, indeed  fatal consequences for some.

Fearing a scandal, Robert von Helldorf is anxious to avoid involving the police but eventually he has no choice. Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold) arrives to conduct the investigation in person.

The servants provide some potentially useful information but as they appear to be not entirely truthful their evidence may be less helpful than Commissioner Forster might have hoped. It does however seem likely that the maid’s story of a mysterious stranger may well be true. There is also the curious matter of Robert von Helldorf’s car which was seen leaving the castle around the time of one of the deaths although both von Helldorf and his chauffeur are adamant that the car never left the garage.

It becomes obvious that a solution can only be found if someone else will volunteer to spend the night in the Blue Room and this plan certainly brings results.

William Hurlbut’s script provides a plot that is serviceable enough with several red herrings and an exciting climax in the bowels of the castle. Kurt Neumann was a solid journeyman director and is able to extract the right amount of suspense from the story.

The setting is rather puzzling. Castle Helldorf looks like the sort of castle that suggests a central European locale and the fact that it belongs to a family with a name like von Helldorf strengthens that suspicion. The trouble is that the supporting players are much too obviously American and having a newspaper reporter a a major character suggests an American setting. In fact one gets the impression that no-one involved in the making of the film was quite sure whether Castle Helldorf should be a genuine central European castle or whether it should be a sham castle somewhere in the US.

Lionel Atwill gives what is by his standards a restrained but nonetheless effective performance without any trace of hamminess. Paul Lukacs does a fine job as Captain Brink although his performance suggests that he at least was quite certain that he was playing a central European military officer. Gloria Stuart, who appeared in a number of classic Universal horror and science fiction movies, is an effective and engaging heroine. Edward Arnold is very good also. All in all it’s a pretty strong cast. 

While the content of the movie places it in the mystery rather than the horror genre it is a Universal movie and it has much of the atmosphere of the classic Universal horror films, especially the scenes towards the end in the passageways beneath the castle.

This was a very low-budget movie even by Universal’s standards but one thing you have to say for Universal - they could make a cheap movie of this type look pretty impressive. 

One huge plus is the almost complete absence of the comic relief that is such an irritating feature of so many Hollywood genre movies of this period.

The made-on-demand DVD from the Universal Vault series is barebones but the transfer is a good one.

Unexplained deaths, a haunted room, a mysterious stranger, links to evil events in the past, secret passageways, dark secrets - all the ingredients are there to make a fine Old Dark House movie and in this case those ingredients are blended together with skill and assurance. The result is a very entertaining movie. Plus it has Lionel Atwill! Highly recommended.