Saturday 30 January 2016

The Mechanic (1972)

The Mechanic is one of the most interesting of the movies Charles Bronson did for English director Michael Winner in the 70s. Winner is much reviled and often misunderstood as a director and while The Mechanic is a fine action thriller there’s a lot more going on here.

Arthur Bishop (Bronson) is a hitman. He is a very efficient hitman because he takes infinite pains. His hits are almost works of art. The movie opens with a spell-binding extended sequence in which Bishop stalks and kills one of his targets. Apart from being both tense and fascinating it also tells us a good deal about Arthur Bishop. He is a man of extraordinary patience who plans his work with an attention to detail that is almost pathological.

His work has made him a very rich man. On the surface he is cool and controlled and he enjoys the good things of life - fine wines, good food and art. We soon realise however that he is not a happy man. He suffers from paralysing anxiety attacks. He is lonely and despite his wealth his life is empty.

Then he meets Steve McKenna (Jan-Michael Vincent), the son of gangster Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn). Harry is now deceased. In fact it was Arthur Bishop who killed him. Bishop liked Harry but a job is a job. Steve reacts to his father’s death with indifference. Shortly afterwards Steve’s girlfriend announces that she is going to kill herself. She slahes her wrists. Steve calmly watches as she starts slowly bleeding to death. He knows she won’t go through with it, that she’ll back down at the last minute. Or maybe she won’t. Steve doesn’t care either way.

Bishop realises that Steve has that quality of detachment that he has always strived for, a detachment that makes a man an ideal assassin. He begins to train as his apprentice.

Given that Steve clearly has the potential to be every bit as efficient a killer as Bishop you might wonder whether it’s such a good idea to train a guy who might well end up being your own replacement. Especially given that there’s no pension plan for hitmen. Bishop is undoubtedly aware of this possibility. He’s no fool. He knows that Steve is as ruthless and pitiless as he is. This is in my view the key to the whole movie. By training Steve Bishop is deliberately courting death, or perhaps defying death. Or perhaps he simply wants to find out what will happen, just as Steve watched his girlfriend’s suicide attempt with dispassionate interest. 

The essential clue can be found in Bishop’s house, in one of his paintings. It’s one of those late medieval dance of death paintings (by Bosch). And that’s what Arthur Bishop is doing - he is dancing with death because his life has no meaning and it’s the only way he can feel something. Maybe he isn’t actually hoping to die. Maybe he thinks he can find some meaning this way. Or maybe he really is hoping to die. Death may be the only thing Arthur Bishop is capable of loving.

As for Steve, he believes he has the detachment to survive this kind of lifestyle. But then Arthur Bishop thought he had that quality as well. Steve may well be taking his first step toward joining the dance of death.

Meanwhile these two men are both very much aware of the game they are playing. It is a game that must end in death, but which of them will die?

To make this idea work requires some pretty good acting. Charles Bronson delivers the goods. Bronson was one of the great action movie stars but he was always a more subtle and complex actor than he was given credit for. He had the ability to convey a great deal about the characters he played while seeming to be doing very little. I rate this is one of his best performances.

Jan-Michael Vincent is also very good, and rather chilling.

There will of course be those who will insist on seeing a homoerotic subtext in the relationship between the two hitmen. This is I think a complete misunderstanding of the film. It’s made very clear that it’s the father-son dynamic that is important here - the relationships between Bishop and his father, between Steve and his father, and the father-son relationship between Bishop and Steve. These relationships are characterised by a complete lack of emotion, this lack of emotion inevitably creating a sense of emptiness and disconnectedness. These peculiar father-son relationships are also all intimately connected with death. Everything in this movie comes back to death.

The one weak point in the film is the motorcycle chase scene which doesn’t quite work. The tone is wrong - it’s a Bond movie-style action scene but this is not a Bond movie. On the other hand the other major action set-pieces are excellent.

Despite including plenty of action scenes this not really an action movie. Winner throws in the action scenes because in 1972 they were a commercial necessity. The movie is really more of a psychological suspense thriller and Winner handles the suspense superbly while Bronson handles the psychological aspects with equal success.

The MGM Region 1 DVD provides a good anamorphic transfer without any extras. There have been a couple of recent Blu-Ray releases but I haven’t seen them so I can’t offer any opinion on them.

The Mechanic is a chance to see Bronson at the top of his game. A fine and rather complex thriller. Highly recommended. 

Sunday 24 January 2016

The Monster Walks (1932)

As you may have noticed I’ve been watching a lot of Old Dark House movies recently. It’s a genre I’m slowly warming up to. The Monster Walks, dating from 1932, is a frustrating missed opportunity - it had the potential to be an excellent example of the breed but the potential is largely wasted.

It opens in time-honoured style. It is a Dark and Stormy Night. A rich old man has died and the relatives and hangers-on are gathered for the reading of the will. Will the old man’s fortune go to his daughter Ruth (Vera Reynolds) or will his invalid brother Robert(Sheldon Lewis)  inherit part (or possibly all) of the estate? Will his faithful family retainers, Emma Krug and her son Hanns (Mischa Auer), be properly rewarded for their long service?

Ruth and her boyfriend Dr Ted Clayton (Rex Lease) are more worried about the ape in the basement. The ape has always hated Ruth. Perhaps he just finds her insufferably dull and insipid. I can understand that.

Also on hand is the family lawyer, Herbert Wilkes (Sidney Bracey), and the chauffeur Exodus (Willie Best).

Of course we know that there will be murder, and there is. And we expect some Rampaging Ape action. We also know that the house used to belong to smugglers and is honeycombed with secret passageways.

So we have everything needed here for a fine Old Dark House movie. What went wrong? The main trouble is that we’re given way too much information too early in the movie. The will is read too early. The motives are therefore too obvious and the suspense falls flat. The secret passageways do play a part but they should have been utilised more fully. There are not enough red herrings.

On the plus side Mischa Auer is terrific. It’s a very silent film-like performance but it works surprisingly well. He’s spooky and scary but we can’t help feeling some sympathy for him. Sheldon Lewis is quite good as the crippled brother. The other players are mostly somewhat on the bland side although Willie Best as the archetypal black servant has some amusing moments.

There are also a few effective visual touches. The violin scene (I won’t reveal any more about it) is suitably creepy. The constant thunder and lightning and the candle-lit scenes are clichéd elements but when they’re combined with the screaming of the enraged ape they work rather well.

Frank R. Strayer was a prolific if undistinguished director of B-movies but he handles this assignment efficiently enough. Given a better script he could have turned this into a pretty enjoyable little movie. Robert Ellis’s screenplay really is the stumbling block. He’s like a trainee chef who has all the right ingredients to hand to make a delicious mean but he can’t get the timing right. The meat is underdone while the vegetables are overcooked, and he hasn’t added quite enough spice.

This is a fairly low-budget production but fortunately Old Dark House movies don’t require much in the way of elaborate sets.

This movie is public domain and I found my copy in a Mill Creek set. The transfer is actually quite good, better than you would expect in such a set. Even the sound quality is quite satisfactory.

Despite its flaws The Monster Walks is still reasonably good fun. It’s a lesser Old Dark House movie but worth a look if you’re a fan of the genre.

Sunday 17 January 2016

The Phantom Planet (1961)

The Phantom Planet is a typical 1950s American sci-fi film although it was made in 1961 and on a very low budget (by a outfit called Four Crown Productions). It has the virtues and vices of 50s sci-fi but on the whole it’s quite entertaining.

In 1980 an American spacecraft, Pegasus III, reports seeing a planet suddenly appear where no planet should be. The spacecraft is never heard from again and the mysterious planet vanishes as suddenly and inexplicably as it arrived. This is the second US spacecraft to be lost in a short space of time so the US Air Force is getting slightly worried. The decision is made to send up another ship, Pegasus IV, under the command of the very experienced Captain Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks). 

Pegasus IV of course encounters the phantom planet but Chapman makes a relatively safe landing on the planet’s surface. The fact that the planet is inhabited by people who look exactly like humans is surprising. More surprising is the fact that they are only six inches tall. Most surprising of all is that Frank Chapman finds himself shrinking to the same size!

Chapman is rather put out when he is forced to stand trial after an unfortunate incident soon after his landing. He’s even more put out when he’s found guilty and hears the sentence - he must remain on this tiny planet (known as Rehton) for the rest of his life.

There are compensations. A large proportion of the planet’s inhabitants seem to be young gorgeous women.

One of these young gorgeous women immediately takes a shine to him. She is Liara (Coleen Gray), daughter of the leader of the phantom planet’s people, Sessom (Francis X. Bushman). Chapman is more interested in the stunningly beautiful mute girl Zetha (Dolores Faith). This romantic triangle is actually a quadrangle since Liara already has an admirer. Eventually the matter will have to be resolved by a duel to the death. The people of Rehton have technology far in advance of ours but they still practise duelling.

That takes care of the romance subplot. The main plot concerns Chapman’s overwhelming desire to go back to Earth, an undertaking in which he will receive help from an unexpected source. Before he can do that though the people of Rehton find themselves under attack from their deadly enemies, the Solarite fire people. There is a captive Solarite on Rehton, although it’s not clear why they want to keep such a dangerous prisoner who apparently has the capability to destroy them all if he gets loose.

There are a lot of things in this movie that don’t make a lot of sense but then that’s one of the main attractions of 50s sci-fi. Entertainingly silly technobabble is one of the great joys of science fiction movies of this era and The Phantom Planet really excels itself in this department. The explanation of Chapman’s shrinking is particularly absurd, but deliciously and amusingly so.

Dean Fredericks looks the way an astronaut hero should look and his performance is fine by B-movie standards. Coleen Gray was a talented actress whose career never really took off after a promising start. By 1961 she was mostly doing television. She does well here as the slightly ambiguous Liara. Silent era legend Francis X. Bushman was pushing 80 when he made this movie but he brings a certain grandeur to his role. Dolores Faith may not have been the greatest actress who ever lived but she’s a looker and she does convey a slight oddness which makes Zetha more convincingly alien than any of the other characters.

William Marshall was an actor who only directed three films, this being the last of the three.  He does a reasonable if hardly inspiring job, but it’s a cheap B-movie and they don’t offer too many opportunities for directorial brilliance. The script borrows ideas from all over the place (including obviously Gulliver’s Travels).

The special effects are actually not too bad. The spacecraft interiors look convincing. The space walk sequences are excellent. The spaceship itself looks no worse than the average movie spaceship of this era. The sets representing the phantom planet are satisfactory enough, given the very low budget. The monster (that’s the Solarite mentioned earlier) looks goofy but it looks goofy in a good way. 

This movie is in the public domain and there are therefore quite a few DVD versions. The one I watched originated from Payless Films and the transfer is acceptable enough given that it’s a public domain film and a budget DVD. The transfer is fullframe. I have no idea what the correct aspect ratio is for this movie. IMDb says 1.37:1; other sites disagree. I didn’t really notice any obvious signs of a pan-and-scan job.

The people involved in making The Phantom Planet did their best with the very limited resources available to them and the results are better than one might expect. It may not be a science fiction classic but it’s reasonably well-paced, the acting isn’t too bad, and in general it’s a quite enjoyable 82 minutes of slightly silly sci-fi fun. Recommended.

Sunday 10 January 2016

So Darling, So Deadly (1966)

So Darling, So Deadly (AKA Agent Joe Walker: Operation Far East, original title Kommissar X - In den Klauen des goldenen Drachen) was the third of the seven popular Kommissar X eurospy films. It’s an international co-production between Germany, Italy, Austria and Singapore. This is a fairly typical eurospy feature and it’s one of the better examples of the breed.

Joe Walker was the hero of a series of German crime/espionage novels. Paul Alfred Mueller wrote 620 (!) Kommissar X novels under the name Bert F. Island - and there were hundreds more titles by other writers.  

The eurospy genre of course consisted of low-budget James Bond knock-offs but the best of them have a distinctive flavour, and a madness, all their own.

One thing you don’t worry too much about in eurospy movies is plot coherence. They do have plots but if the plots make no sense that tends to be a feature rather than a bug. This one has a plot and it concerns a kindly well-intentioned physicist who has invented a new kind of laser that is a terrifying death ray. It’s remarkable how many kindly movie scientists seem to devote their careers to the invention of death rays. This particular death ray can knock an aircraft out of the sky 300 miles away.

Of course like every brilliant scientist in the history of movies he has a beautiful daughter, and of course you know that at some point she’s going to get herself kidnapped by the bad guys.

Agent Joe Walker (Tony Kendall) is given the task of preventing the death ray from falling into the wrong hands. In the novels Joe Walker was apparently a kind of private eye but in this movie he seems to work (possibly unofficially) for a agency known as the International Bureau. He is sent to Singapore to protect the scientist and he is accompanied by tough New York cop Captain Tom Rowland (Brad Harris).

A mysterious group of bad guys try to kill Walker and Rowland as soon as their plane lands in Singapore and they go on trying to kill them. The bad guys include a deadly blonde named Stella (Gisela Hahn) who seems to see killing as her vocation in life.

There’s no point in worrying too much about what happens next. Suffice to say there are murders, lots of attempted murders, kidnappings, brawls and in general plenty of action. The death ray is basically a McGuffin and it provides the excise for mayhem in abundance. Since it’s set in Singapore there’s a certain flavour of the Mysterious East to it and there are even a few hints of Fu Manchu in the form of the brotherhood of the Golden Dragon.

Writer-director Gianfranco Parolini made peplums, spaghetti westerns and eurospy movies and with So Darling, So Deadly he proves himself to be fairly competent. He keeps the action moving along at a frenetic pace and he handles the action scenes well enough considering the budgetary restraints he was working under. Much of the movie was shot in Singapore, giving the obligatory touch of the exotic. The action scenes obviously can’t compare to those in a Bond film but they’re executed with a reasonable amount of flair. The Singapore locations are used quite effectively.

Tony Kendall, despite his name, was an Italian actor. He makes a perfect eurospy hero - suave, dashing, recklessly brave, always chasing the ladies and always with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He may not have been the world’s greatest actor (although he’s perfectly adequate) but most importantly he was handsome and he certainly had charm and charisma, he could do action stuff convincingly and he looked like a movie secret agent.

Brad Harris was a genuine American, a college athlete and bodybuilder who made a career for himself in the Italian movie industry appearing in peplums, spaghetti westerns and eurospy films. He makes a good foil for Tony Kendall. In the discotheque scene he proves himself to be an amazing dancer - and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Do you remember the bad old days of VHS when if you wanted to watch a movie at home you would find yourself watching a horrible mangled pan-and-scanned print, probably cut, and with atrocious picture quality? Those bad old days are gone forever. Unless you’re a eurospy fan If you’re a eurospy fan then the only way to see most of your favourite titles is still in horrible cut pan-and-scanned prints with abysmal picture quality. 

Retromedia’s DVD release of the first three Kommissar X movies being a case in point. So Darling, So Deadly is indeed pan-and-scanned and image quality is fairly bad. The colours are a bit washed out and they vary wildly from scene to scene. To be fair this seems to improve as the movie progresses. This really is not a great transfer.

On the other hand if you are a eurospy fan you know that this is, with a very few exceptions, par for the course. If you want to see these movies you just have to put up with outrageously awful transfers. And sometimes it’s worth it. This is one of those times when it really is worth it.

The frustrating thing about being a eurospy fan is that you know that one of the reasons the genre is not highly thought of is simply that most people have never had the opportunity to see these movies in their correct aspect rations and in decent prints.

So Darling, So Deadly is classic eurospy fun. It’s silly fast-paced action-packed enjoyment. Highly recommended.

Monday 4 January 2016

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

The Plague of the Zombies was, I believe I am correct in stating, Hammer’s only attempt at a zombie film. And a very worthy attempt it is too.

John Gilling had made some interesting movies in the film noir genre in the 50s, most notably Deadly Nightshade (1953) and The Challenge (1960), before becoming a semi-regular director for Hammer in the 60s. He made five movies for Hammer, including two back-to-back in 1966, the underrated The Reptile and The Plague of the Zombies. In fact they were made more or less simultaneously using the same locations and sets.

An eminent physician, Sir James Forbes (André Morell), has been called down to Cornwall by Dr Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). Dr Tompson is general practitioner in a small village and he is facing a situation that has him alarmed and perplexed. Young villagers are dying in disturbing numbers and he can find no clues whatsoever as to the causes. The situation is not helped by the refusal of the superstitious villagers to allow him to conduct post-mortem examinations.

Sir James is accompanied by his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare). It’s immediately obvious that there is something very wrong in the village. On their arrival they see a funeral disrupted by a crowd of young and obviously wealthy ruffians on horseback. Sylvia’s old school friend Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), now married to Dr Tompson, seems ill and very uneasy. Dr Tompson is drinking more than he should. The atmosphere in the village’s pub is tense to say the least.

Sir James convinces Dr Tompson that they will be able to make no progress unless they can carry out a post-mortem on one of the victims, even if they have to rob the victim’s grave to do so. Which is what they proceed to do. The discovery of an empty coffin in the grave adds to the mystery.

It transpires that someone is practising voodoo, but to what ends? Why do they need an army of zombies?

This movie doesn’t have too many familiar Hammer faces but the cast is perfectly adequate. André Morell is superb as Forbes, Jacqueline Pearce is excellent, Diane Clare is quite competent. Brook Williams is a little dull but Dr Tompson is a rather thankless role. The biggest surprise is Michael Ripper - he isn’t playing an innkeeper! He plays the local police sergeant, and has great fun doing so.

This film has all the usual strengths of a Hammer film. The gothic atmosphere is effective, as you would expect with Arthur Grant doing the cinematography. With Bernard Robinson as production designer the movie looks splendid.

The zombie make-up effects work very well indeed.

Within a couple of years of the release of this film George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead would usher in a new era of gore-drenched zombie movies. Personally I prefer zombie movies of the earlier type, and I much prefer a movies that tie zombies in with voodoo, as this one does quite effectively. There isn’t much gore in The Plague of the Zombies but it still manages to evoke some genuine chills and a nicely creepy ambience.

Anchor Bay’s old DVD release still stands up extremely well.

The Plague of the Zombies is classic Hammer gothic horror. It looks good, it has a strong cast, a decent script and it benefits from having a director who knows what he’s doing and isn’t trying to be excessively clever. This is fine entertainment for Hammer fans. Highly recommended.

Friday 1 January 2016

best cult movies seen in 2015

The best cult movies I saw in 2015, by order of release date.

The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (John Guillermin, 1959)

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

The Time Travelers (Ib Melchior, 1964)

Gambit (Ronald Neame, 1966)

A Dandy in Aspic (Anthony Mann, Laurence Harvey, 1968)

Fear Is the Key (Michael Tuchner, 1972)

Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1972)

Juggernaut (Richard Lester, 1974)

Telefon (Don Siegel, 1977)