Saturday 25 June 2016

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

The Beast with Five Fingers is a 1946 horror movie from Warner Brothers, a studio that was not exactly renowned for such movies.

Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) is a famous and wealthy concert pianist who lives in a small village in Italy around about the beginning of the 20th century. His concert career was all but ended by a stroke that left him paralysed on one side. He can still play the piano, but obviously only with one hand. He lives in querulous and dissatisfied retirement. The only thing that keeps him going is the devotion of his nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King). Ingram is perhaps too dependent on her, to an extent that has been making her increasingly uncomfortable. She has finally decided to leave.

The other members of thus uneasy household are Conrad Ryler (Robert Alda), a once promising composer who now exists on Ingram’s charity plus whatever money he can make selling phony antiques to tourists, and Ingram’s secretary Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre). Hilary has been a useful secretary but his real passion is for astrology. What keeps him in Ingram’s house is access to the house’s matchless library of astrological and occult volumes. Hilary dreams of rediscovering the lost wisdom of the ancients. 

Hilary is a little eccentric and perhaps even just the tiniest bit unbalanced, but the same could be said for Francis Ingram. Conrad is perhaps not the most stable individual either. It’s the sort of household that you would expect to coalesce around a string but eccentric character like Ingram - Hilary and Conrad are essentially weak characters who would have trouble surviving on their own.

Ingram’s decision to alter his will has fateful consequences although it’s Julie’s threatened departure that is the catalyst for tragedy. Ingram is found dead at the foot of the staircase. 

Ingram had only two living relatives, his brother-in-law Raymond Arlington (Charles Dingle) and Arlington’s son Donald (John Alvin). The Arlingtons are crass and greedy and never cared about poor old Ingram when he was alive but they are determined to get his money. That will stands in their way. They intend to challenge it. It’s a pity that a dead man cannot do anything to thwart the schemes of unscrupulous grasping relatives. Or perhaps he can? It soon appears that he most certainly can.

It’s not Ingram or Ingram’s ghost that commits the subsequent murders - it’s his disembodied hand. Someone or something is also playing Ingram’s piano and Conrad, a trained musician himself, swears that it must be Ingram - the style is unmistakeable. There’s no-one at the piano - just the hand.

Making a disembodied hand convincing has always been a challenge to special effects department but in this film it’s done remarkably well. It’s not only convincing - director Robert Florey knows just how to use the hand for maximum creepiness and shock effect.

Florey was a quite prolific director of mostly B-features who made a handful of notable horror films. He does a good job here, laying on plenty of gothic atmosphere and conveying a sense of both dread and madness. The madness comes from the fact that we’re not quite sure if something supernatural is occurring or not.

Curt Siodmak had many science fiction and horror screenplays to his credit. His basic idea here is a good one and his script is polished and literate.

Robert Alda gives a personable enough performance as the pleasant if indolent Conrad. Victor Francen is excellent as Ingram while Andrea King is a quite adequate heroine. Peter Lorre is in fine form as Hilary. Hilary is really a fairly sympathetic character - he’s weak and sometimes manipulative but all he wants is to be left alone to continue his occult studies. Unfortunately it seems that no-one understands how important his work is. He becomes increasingly frustrated and starts to lose his grip. His slow psychological unravelling is handled brilliantly by Lorre who knows when to underplay and when to start really going over the top. J. Carrol Naish provides some gentle comic relief as the charming but increasingly frustrated local police chief.

Horror movies were very much out of fashion in Hollywood in 1946. On the rare occasions when horror was attempted it was almost invariably undercut by providing non-supernatural explanations so the films ended up being merely horror-tinged mysteries, and more often than not second-rate mysteries. Happily there’s nothing second-rate about The Beast with Five Fingers. As to whether it succumbs to the lamentable temptation of providing a rational explanation - you’ll have to watch the movie for yourself.

On the whole this is a surprisingly effective and very entertaining movie, extremely well made and featuring a terrific Peter Lorre performance. The Beast with Five Fingers is highly recommended.

Sunday 19 June 2016

The Incredible Petrified World (1957)

The Incredible Petrified World, made in 1957 but not released until a couple of years later, is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Movies that have been tagged in that manner often turn out to be very entertaining. The Incredible Petrified World, sadly, is not one of them.

The basic premise is fine. Professor Millard Wyman (John Carradine) has invented a new and highly advanced diving bell. Unfortunately on its first test something goes terribly wrong and the bell is lost. It had descended to such a great depth that there is no hope for the survival of any of the crew. 

In fact they do survive. The diving bell had been swept into an underwater cavern and within the cavern is fresh air. More surprisingly there is apparently fresh water as well although why this should be is never explained. Our four aquanauts, two men and two women, are safe for the time being but the bad news is that they’re trapped in a maze of caverns far below the earth’s surface. They cannot swim back out into the sea because they’re much too deep and they have no way of knowing if there is any way out.

Of course the audience knows they will have all sorts of adventures in this hidden world, except that nothing of the kind really happens. They wander about lost, they stop to rest, then wander about lost some more. At one point they do encounter a fearsome giant lizard. It ignores them and they ignore it.

Eventually it does look like some actual adventure might ensue when they discover a skeleton and a strange old man who claims to have been living in the cavern for fourteen years. Surely now we will get some kind of payoff? Alas, although the old guy is a bit sinister very little really happens.

Meanwhile Professor Wyman tries to get together another expedition using another diving bell. He is determined to find out what went wrong with his original design. The scene in which he delivers a torrent of delightfully loopy technobabble explaining his theory of what went wrong is the highlight of the movie.

There are also the obligatory romantic entanglements and jealousies between the four trapped aquanauts. That would have been fine if such scenes had been used to engage our interest in between exciting action sequences but in the absence of any exciting action sequences they tend to be merely annoying.

Producer-director Jerry Warren was known for low-budget efforts such as this, none of them very distinguished. His stodgy directing style is a major part of the problem with this movie. He has no sense of pacing or of suspense and seemingly no ability to craft action scenes. He relies heavily on stock footage, which was common enough in low-budget features at this time, but the scary thing about this film is that you end up wishing there was more stock footage and less of the actual movie.

The acting is a huge problem also. John Carradine is fine. In fact he’s very good considering how little the script gives him to work with. The other actors are uniformly awful. Bad acting will not necessarily sink a low-budget sci-fi flick but dull acting certainly will and these actors are devastatingly dull.

Strangely enough one of the things this film doesn’t suffer from is an excessively cheap look. The diving bell looks OK. The cavern sequences (which make up most of the movie’s original footage) actually look pretty good and pretty convincing. Some of this footage was actually shot in real caves in Arizona.

This film is public domain and the copy I saw was terrible although I told that Something Weird’s DVD release is excellent.

The Incredible Petrified World is by no means the worst movie of all time but it’s fairly bad and lacks the energy and sense of fun to compensate for its artistic deficiencies. Not really worth the effort.

Monday 13 June 2016

The Body Snatcher (1945)

The Body Snatcher was one of the later RKO horror B-films produced by Val Lewton and was a major commercial success for the studio. It was shot in 1944 and released in 1945. It was the first of the three Lewton films to star Boris Karloff (actually Isle of the Dead should have been the first but production was temporarily halted and it was completed after The Body Snatcher).

It was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of the same name which was based in turn on the infamous West Port Murders (for which Burke and Hare were believed responsible).

The story takes place in Edinburgh in 1831. Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is not only a very prominent doctor but also a renowned teacher at Edinburgh’s famous medical school. Like his predecessor Dr Knox (who was involved in the Burke and Hare case) Dr MacFarlane has one major problem - the immense difficulty of obtaining a sufficient supply of cadavers for his students. His main source of supply is a cabman named Gray (Boris Karloff). Gray has a knack for supplying bodies when needed. The bodies in fact are obtained from grave-robbing.

In the West Port Murders case it was alleged that Burke and Hare not only robbed graves but also hastened the deaths of the unfortunates who provided the cadavers. We have our suspicions right from the start that Gray may well be doing the same thing. Dr MacFarlane certainly has very strong suspicions but he dare not voice them. For one thing he himself could well be implicated in any investigation. Secondly, he wants those cadavers for his students. And finally, it is clear that Gray has some sort of hold over him.

MacFarlane’s new assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), wants to give up studying medicine entirely when he discovers Gray’s activities. He is persuaded not to do so by MacFarlane. MacFarlane argues that the benefits for society (more and better trained doctors) outweighs the evils of grave-robbing and possible murder. To what extent both MacFarlane and Fettes have really convinced themselves of this we are not really sure but the internal moral dilemmas faced by both men provide much of the movie’s impetus.

There’s a sub-plot involving a little girl who needs an operation in order to be able to walk again, and Dr MacFarlane is the only man capable of performing it. This sub-plot could have been merely an excuse to indulge in some cheap sentimentality but it’s used quite cleverly in order to give us a much greater insight into Dr MacFarlane’s very troubled mind.

Lewton was more interested in movies that explored interesting psychological states rather than just horror pictures as such. The basis of his success at RKO was his ability to produce movies that combined both psychology and horror. In The Body Snatcher the real core of the story is the complex and unhealthy relationship between Dr MacFarlane and Gray and the resulting psychological power struggles between the two men.

Like all the Lewton RKO productions this movie is more character than plot-driven. This means that the actors are required to do some real acting. That proves to be no problem. Karloff was delighted with his role, realising instantly that it was going to give him the opportunity to really show his acting chops. He delivers a superb performance. For Henry Daniell it also offered one of his best roles and he made the most of it. 

Karloff and Daniell dominate the movie entirely. Russell Wade is more than adequate but inevitably he is hopelessly overshadowed. Bela Lugosi is relegated to a minor role which he carries off reasonably well (this was to be the last film in which Karloff and Lugosi appeared together).

For this film it was going to be necessary to evoke the feel of early 19th century Edinburgh.  Medieval Paris might not sound like an ideal match but Lewton realised that standing sets built for The Hunchback of Notre Dame would in fact be quite suitable for this purpose.

The original script for The Body Snatcher was written by Philip MacDonald but it was Lewton himself who was responsible for the final shooting script (although as always he used a pseudonym for his writing credit).

Lewton was one of that small handful of producers who not only wanted to make a genuine creative contribution to their movies but also had the talent actually to do so. Perhaps even more importantly he seemed to have the ability to do this without treading on the toes of either his directors or his writers. One of the most effective scenes in the picture, in which a young street singer is seen walking away from the camera down a street leading into a kind of tunnel, was (according to Robert Wise) one of Lewton’s ideas.

Lewton had given Robert Wise his first opportunity as a director when he assigned him to complete The Curse of The Cat People. The Body Snatcher was his third film for Lewton. On the whole Wise does a fine job. He lacks the true visual genius of a Jacques Tourneur but The Body Snatcher is still an impressive-looking film.

The DVD supposedly includes an audio commentary track by director Robert Wise. What it actually is is a lengthy interview with Wise, but it’s still quite interesting even if he doesn’t have a huge amount to say specifically about The Body Snatcher

The transfer featured on the DVD is superb.

The Body Snatcher is not quite in the top rank of the Lewton horror films but it’s a good movie nonetheless, offering the usual Lewton blend of intelligent thoughtful horror (particularly impressive in this case with subject material that would tempt most film-makers to take a much more sensationalistic and exploitative approach). Highly recommended.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Bikini Beach (1964)

Bikini Beach was the third movie in the very successful series of beach party movies released by American International Pictures. Once again Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon are the stars.

It’s summer again and it’s time for teenagers to head for the beach. Frankie (Frankie Avalon), Dee Dee (Annette Funicello) and all the gang are looking forward to surfing and partying but not everyone is happy. Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn), who runs a nearby old folks’ home, is not happy. He considers modern teenagers to be depraved. He has taught his monkey Clyde to surf in order to prove his theory that monkeys have about the same intelligence as teenagers. Honeywagon is also leading a local campaign to have the beach (known popularly as Bikini Beach) closed to surfers.

The kids get some support from local school teacher Vivien Clements (played by Martha Hyer). 

Also on hand, and about to be drawn into this epic struggle, are Big Drag (Don Rickles), Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and Potato Bug. Big Drag runs the cafe where the surfers hang out and also runs the local drag strip. Eric von Zipper (as anyone who was seen the earlier AIP beach party movies knows) is the leader of the Rats and Mice motorcycle gang. As for Potato Bug, he’s an aristocratic British pop star who is also a drag racing enthusiast. Frankie Avalon plays Potato Bug and does so in an outrageously over-the-top manner that almost allows us to forget that British pop stars in the 60s were nothing whatever like this.

There’s naturally a romantic triangle, the gimmick being that both of Annette Funicello’s suitors are played by Frankie Avalon. The gimmick gets pushed even further in one scene with one of the Frankie Avalon characters impersonating the other.

Eric von Zipper of course has a nefarious plot brewing, which he executes with his usual total incompetence. Meanwhile Honeywagon seems to be falling for the charms of the school teacher - does this mean he’ll soften his attitude towards the kids?

Adding drag racing to the mix provides a bit of variety for those audience members who might have been tiring of surfing by this time.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are as likeable as ever and their acting is more than adequate. Don Rickles chews the scenery amusingly and he’s more amiable than we expect Rickles to be. Keenan Wynn as Honeywagon has perhaps the film’s most rewarding role and he makes the most of it. Towards the end there’s a brief cameo by one of AIP’s biggest stars (this being a device used in the earlier Beach Party as well).

The music is actually pretty good. In fact it’s great. The movie opens with Bikini Beach which is a terrific song. The musical highlights though are the couple of songs by surf rock band The Pyramids.

Apart from helming no less than five of AIP’s beach party movies director William Asher worked mostly in television. He does a pretty good job with Bikini Beach, keeping the mood light and breezy and not allowing the pacing to drag. The two set-pieces that provide the film’s climax, a wild chase followed by a wild fight in Big Drag’s joint, are done with plenty of energy and playfulness. There are quite a few process shots in the chase sequence but for a low-budget movie made in 1964 they’re not done too badly. 

Asher also pulls off some decent visual gags. The humour is a nice mix of slapstick and verbal gags.

Bikini Beach was paired with Beach Party as an MGM Midnite Movies DVD release. Bikini Beach is letterboxed and not anamorphic but the transfer is generally pretty good. There are no extras. Beach Party is definitely worth seeing as well so this DVD is excellent value. Bikini Beach is also available as part of an eight-movie Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon DVD boxed set, the transfers being identical to the earlier Midnite Movies releases.

Bikini Beach is a silly light-hearted but genuinely amusing and entirely harmless romp with some great songs. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Krull (1983)

The 1983 British-US co-production Krull seems on the surface to be an attempt to jump on the sword-and-sorcery bandwagon that was kicked off by Conan the Barbarian a year earlier. In fact it’s more a sword-and-planet than a sword-and-sorcery film and has more in common with Star Wars. As we shall see, it has a very great deal in common with Star Wars.

Krull is the latest planet to fall victim to the Slayers, led by the mysterious Beast. The Slayers are from some unknown planet (we know this because at the beginning of the movie we see the arrival of their reasonably impressive-looking spaceship that doubles as their castle). Two kings of Krull have decided, not without misgivings, to unite their kingdoms under the joint rule of their children, Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony). The wedding between Colwyn and Lyssa will seal the deal but the ceremony is brutally interrupted by an attack from the Slayers. The Slayers not only leave nothing but devastation behind, they also kidnap Lyssa.

Colwyn survives but is sunk in despair. It is up to an Old Wise Man, Ynyr (Freddie Jones), to try to convince him that he must Fulfill His Destiny (yes this movie has a Prophecy) and that he can overcome the Slayers. Or at least, he has a better chance of doing that than anyone else. To do all this he will need a potent weapon that will serve as an equally potent symbol - the semi-legendary Glaive.

Colwyn will need to recruit an army. Since the Slayers are supposedly an almost invincible military force you’d think he’d need a real army but he decides a dozen thieves and cut-throats will be enough. In fact the Slayers prove to be typical movie bad guys (a bit like the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars) - while they can easily overcome a disciplined army defending  a strong fortfification they turn out to be utterly useless when pitted against a disorganised rabble in the open - even when they’ve managed to ambush that rabble!

The big challenge for Colwyn will be to find the Black Fortress so he can destroy the Beast. The Black Fortress doesn’t stay in the one spot for more than a day. Only the blind seer can tell where it will be and first they have to find him. The usual adventures and complications ensue.

Director Peter Yates had an interesting if uneven career. His filmography includes the action classic Bullitt (1968) so his ability to direct exciting action sequences was never in doubt.

With Derek Meddings in charge of the visual effects you’d expect this movie to impress in this area, and generally speaking those expectations are fulfilled. Meddings had done the special effects for most of the 1960s Gerry Anderson television shows as well as for the Bond films of the 70s. 

The miniatures are excellent, the sets look splendidly weird and most of the special effects stand up pretty well today.

Ken Marshall is a pretty decent action hero. Lyssette Anthony looks kind of ethereal and kind of sensual and mischievous all at the same time. She’s not required to do much acting but she’s fine. Alun Armstrong does well as Torquil, erstwhile leader of Colwyn’s bandit army. David Battley isn’t too irritating as the comic relief in competent magician. Bernard Bresslaw’s height (he was 6 ft 7 in) landed him the role of the Cyclops. Freddie Jones however got the plum role and does a very competent job, being careful not to make Ynyr too loveable or too gratingly wise.

If it sounds like Krull is just a collection of fantasy clichés strung together that’s because that’s exactly what it is. We have a Prophecy, a Hero With a Destiny, a Beautiful Princess in need of rescuing, a Magical Talisman, a Quest, a Wise Good Magician, a Blind Seer  and even a harmless incompetent magician to serve as Court Jester. We have an Evil Dark Lord well supplied with minions. There’s hardly a single fantasy cliché that isn’t here.

It doesn’t matter. It’s all done with energy and enthusiasm and style, the story moves along at a brisk pace, the action sequences deliver the goods and the visuals are terrific. If anything the predictability of the plot is an asset. It’s like a fairy tale where knowing what is going to happen adds to the enjoyment. 

While the basic plot outline is predictable the details add some interest. The scenes with the Widow of the Web are very well done. Krull adds nothing new to the genre but it’s consistently entertaining and always great fun. Highly recommended.