Saturday 29 December 2018

favourite cult movies of 2018

my favourite cult movies of 2018

Yes it’s time once again for making “best of” lists. I haven’t seen enough cult movies in the past year to do a proper top ten list so I’ve contented myself with a top half-dozen, rank by year of release not quality.

Here’s the list, with links to my reviews.

Yambaó - Cry of the Bewitched (Alfredo B. Crevenna, 1957)

The Monster That Challenged the World (Arnold Laven, 1957)

The Frozen Dead (Herbert J. Leder, 1966)

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

I'm going to give an honourable mention to The Time Travelers (Alexander Singer, 1976), an interesting TV-movie which was actually a pilot for a projected TV series that never eventuated.

Yes the list is mostly John Carpenter movies! That’s because my cult movie watching in the past year has been mostly limited to - John Carpenter movies.

Sunday 2 December 2018

The Hypnotist (1957)

The Hypnotist (later re-released as Scotland Yard Dragnet) is a 1957 psychological thriller from Britain’s Merton Park Studios. Like most of the studio’s output it’s a low budget production and like most of their output it’s better than you might expect.

In this case it’s also a bit stranger than you might expect.

It starts with test pilot Val Neal (Paul Carpenter) almost being killed when a test flight goes wrong. Against all the odds he escapes with only very minor injuries and he quickly makes a full recovery. Except that it’s not quite a complete recovery. He has these attacks. He becomes very breathless and suffers agonising chest pains. Since there is absolutely nothing physically wrong with him it looks like it’s a case for the psychiatrists, and his fiancée Mary (Patricia Roc) manages to persuade a very eminent man in that field, Dr Francis Pelham (Roland Culver) to take Val on as a private patient.

The therapy seems to make little progress. Since as everyone knows all mental problems can be explained by a repressed childhood memory Mary decides to take a pro-active approach - instead of waiting for Dr Pelham to uncover this repressed memory she’ll do a bit of digging into Val’s past and maybe she’ll find the answer that way.

While she’s doing this Val has a little adventure. While under hypnosis he runs off and after wandering the streets, not even being able to remember his own name, he meets a rather charming young lady in a jazz club. The following morning he remembers his name and returns home.

So far the film seems to be an odd and slightly overwrought psychological melodrama but after nearly an hour it suddenly changes gears and the main plot, a murder mystery plot,  kicks in. The slow buildup could be seen as a flaw but I think it works. It’s a movie that leads us up the garden path and the sudden unexpected act of violence comes as a shock.

Movies from the 40s and 50s dealing with psychiatry and hypnosis are always fun. There’s the delightful child-like faith that people had in such things back then, and the way psychiatrists were regarded almost as magicians. This movie is a particularly good example of the psychiatry-as-magic genre. All you have to do is to find that one crucial memory from the patient’s childhood and he will be instantly cured. And hypnosis is incredibly powerful and you can’t fight against it.

The oddness in this movie doesn’t come from the plot (which is not dazzlingly original) but more from the delightfully sensationalistic and rather outrageous treatment of the hypnosis theme.

Roland Culver is marvellous as always, playing his role with a twinkle in his eyes. It’s a nicely judged performance - Dr Pelham seems like a dedicated and kindly doctor but can we be sure he is what he seems to be?

Paul Carpenter is quite effective as Val, playing him as mostly an easy-going likeable kind of guy but also as a guy who could certainly have some dark secrets and perhaps the potential to lose control completely. As is the case with Dr Pelham we’re uncertain whether to take Val at face value or not.

Writer-director Montgomery Tully was an artisan rather than an artist but his films, particularly in the B-movie crime genre, are usually solid and quite watchable.

Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. The black-and-white image looks great. Extras are pretty much non-existent - a trailer and a stills gallery (which is more than you usually get from Network).

The Hypnotist is perfectly enjoyable and the psychobabble adds extra entertainment value. Recommended.

Thursday 15 November 2018

Ace Drummond (serial, 1936)

Ace Drummond is a 1936 aviation adventure serial from Universal, and it’s one of the best of the early Universal serials.

This serial is based on Eddie Rickenbacker’s comic strip of the same name. Rickenbacker himself was a colourful and larger-than-life character. He was the highest scoring American air ace of the First World War, a racing car driver, the founder of an automobile manufacturing company and an airline executive as well as being a bitter enemy of President Franklin Roosevelt.

International Airways is trying to establish an international network of air services and of course Mongolia is the key to this. So they need to establish an air field there. They have suffered a series of disasters which appear to be the work of a master criminal known as the Dragon, the intention being presumably to close down the airline’s operations in Mongolia.

In desperation the directors of the airline have called on the services of the G-Man of the Air, the famous Ace Drummond. Drummond very narrowly escapes death on his way to Bai-Tal Field, the Mongolian headquarters of International Airways.

There's another mystery to be dealt with as well. Eminent archaeologist, Dr Trainor, who claimed to have discovered a mountain of jade, has disappeared. His daughter Peggy (Jean Rogers) has arrived in Mongolia to try to find some trace of her father.

Both Ace and Peggy suspect that the Dragon is behind Dr Trainor's kidnapping.

Singing cowboys were amazingly popular in 1930s Hollywood. Ace Drummond is a variation on the theme - he’s a singing aviator. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. I did get a little tired of hearing the one song over and over again.

John King as Drummond is an effective square-jawed hero while Jean Rogers as Peggy Trainor makes a fine heroine. Noah Beery Jr gives a scene-stealing performance as aircraft mechanic and part-time hero’s sidekick Jerry. Jerry could easily have been made into a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a sidekick who is resourceful and actually useful, and quite heroic in his own right.

Guy Bates Post gives a florid performance as the Grand Lama of the nearby monastery (where the monks are extremely hostile to the Foreign Devils of the Air). The monastery is not quite the haven of peace you might expect, given that it contains a room specifically designed for the purposes of torture.

There’s also a potentially annoying kid, the son of the airline president, but he turns out to be not as annoying as one might have feared.

The other notable cast member is Lon Chaney Jr as one of the henchman of the chief villain.

There’s no shortage of action in this serial, and the action sequences are imaginative and exciting. There are lots of aerial sequences and they’re pretty impressive.

The cliffhangers are mostly pretty good. As you might expect quite a few involve air crashes.

The identity of the chief villain, the Dragon, is reasonably well concealed. One interesting feature is the killing off of a heroic character, rather surprising in a serial.

This is a Universal serial so the production values are somewhat higher than you’d find in a contemporary Mascot serial. The sets are quite good, especially the monastery sets. There are some gadgets, the best by far being the use of the fans and prayer wheels and even water wheels as radio receivers for messages from the Dragon.

Ace Drummond is available on DVD from several sources. My copy was from, Alpha Video. Both the image quality and sound quality are quite good (by Alpha Video standards anyway).

Ace Drummond is a truly excellent serial. Highly recommended. There were quite a few other 1930s aviation-themed serials, such as The Mystery Squadron (which is also highly enjoyable).

Saturday 27 October 2018

The Return of Dr Fu Manchu (1930)

Paramount released three Fu Manchu movies in the early days of sound movies. All starred Warner Oland (who went on to even greater fame and notoriety as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu appeared in 1929, followed by The Return of Dr Fu Manchu in 1930 and Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. It is The Return of Dr Fu Manchu with which we are concerned at the moment.

It opens with a recap of the events of the first film. The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu had offered an explanation for Fu Manchu’s hatred of European civilisation - his wife and child had been killed by white soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion (in which Fu Manchu had been firmly on the side of the European powers) and so his crusade against white civilisation is motivated entirely by personal revenge. This is totally at odds with the character of Fu Manchu as established in Sax Rohmer’s novels and in my view it cheapens and trivialises the character. In the books Fu Manchu is motivated by grander and nobler sentiments. He believes that either western civilisation must dominate the East, or that eastern civilisation must dominate the West and being Chinese he naturally hopes that eastern civilisation will triumph. He genuinely believes that he is fighting in the cause of a superior civilisation. Reducing him to a man bent on personal revenge, like a character in a cheap B-western, makes him far less interesting.

It also makes him less of a larger-than-life character and less of a super-villain, which is unfortunate. Everything about Fu Manchu should be on the grand scale, both his evil deeds and his acts of nobility. This is lost in these early film adaptations.

But I digress. The recap of the earlier film takes place during Fu Manchu’s funeral, attended by his old foe Inspector Nayland Smith. Since the movie is just beginning and Fu Manchu is the central character I don’t think any viewer is going to be the least bit surprised that with the funeral services over Dr Fu Manchu is revealed to the audience as being very much alive.

Nayland Smith’s close friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Jack Petrie is about to marry Lia Eltham, both these young people believing they are now free from the menace of Fu Manchu. But Fu Manchu is determined the wedding will not take place. Instead there will be a funeral, Jack Petrie’s funeral. Fu Manchu has set himself the goal of murdering all the British officers responsible for the deaths of his wife and son, and he intends to murder the son of those British officers as well. Dr Jack Petrie is the last name on his list.

The movie takes on some of the attributes of the Old Dark House genre, with the wedding party more or less under siege while Fu Manchu is lurking nearby preparing to strike.

Unfortunately it takes a long time before he does strike. This movie is much too slow. Nothing really happens at all in the first half hour.

Early talkies have a reputation for being static with too much dialogue and not enough action, mainly because of technical difficulties with the early sound technology. This film definitely has that dreaded static feel to it. Rowland V. Lee was usually a competent B-movie director so I would assume that the problems here were mostly due to those technological issues.

It does improve and the second half of the film features some interesting battles of will between Smith and Fu Manchu and between Petrie and Fu Manchu. It doesn’t matter who is stronger or braver or cleverer, what really matters is who has the greater will. There is a bit of action and at least some suspense.

Warner Oland was a fine actor and he makes Fu Manchu a living breathing character but he doesn’t quite the grandeur and the arrogance and the aura of genius to really capture the essence of the character. Of the many actors who have played the rôle the only one who really nailed it was Christopher Lee. Warner Oland isn’t terrible by any means but he just isn’t Fu Manchu.

O.P. Heggie is a very dull Nayland Smith. Neil Hamilton (best remembered as the Commissioner in Batman) is not bad as the young Dr Petrie. Jean Arthur doesn’t make much impact as Lia. William Austin provides some excruciatingly feeble and unfunny comic relief as Petrie’s best man.

A major weakness is that we don’t see enough of Fu Manchu himself, especially in the early stages. While I have reservations about Oland’s performance there’s no question that he’s the one actor here really worth watching.

When we finally see Fu Manchu in his lair things pick up a bit. It’s quite a good set, in fact very good, and does convey a kind of oriental mad scientist vibe.

The Return of Dr Fu Manchu is at best a partial success. After a very dull start it provides some entertainment value but it fails to capture the essential spirit of Sax Rohmer’s novels.  Hardcore Fu Manchu fans will probably want to see it anyway out of curiosity.

Saturday 13 October 2018

The Whispering Shadow (serial, 1933)

The Whispering Shadow is a 1933 thirteen-part Mascot serial starring Bela Lugosi. It’s a crime thriller with some elements of science fiction and of the fantastic thrown in, and with a hint of the gothic as well.

The Empire Transport and Storage Company has carved out its own market niche. It’s a trucking company but with some very high-tech features. The trucks are in constant communication with the central warehouse by radio-phone. The system seems fool-proof but unfortunately in practice it’s proving to be worryingly vulnerable. Four Empire trucks have been hijacked recently with fatal results for the drivers involved. A sinister figure knows as the Whispering Shadow is believed to be behind the hijackings. There is no real explanation as to why those particular trucks were targeted.

When another trucks is attacked and the kid brother of chief dispatcher Jack Foster (Malcolm McGregor) is killed the company decides to get serious. They hire the celebrated detective Robert Raymond (Robert Warwick) to take over security.

There’s an extraordinary amount of plot packed into the first episode, not to mention several action set-pieces. Several intriguing characters are introduced - such as jewel thief Jasper Slade and magician Professor Strang (Bela Lugosi). There are cool gadgets. There’s a shadow that speaks. There’s a wax museum. There’s a prison breakout. There’s a full-scale attack on the company’s headquarters - by autogyro! There’s a death ray! There are at least half a dozen very suspicious characters. And it’s paced like a speeding locomotive.

It all has something to do with the most fabulous of all jewel collections, the jewels of the Tsar of Russia.

The pacing doesn’t flag at all. There’s no time wasted on extended dialogue scenes. Any exposition that needs to be done is done at a run. Then it’s time for more action.

The central mystery is the identity of the Whispering Shadow and that mystery is fairly well concealed. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s going to be Bela Lugosi - he did several serials and did not always play villains. There are several other very strong suspects. There’s some fairly good misdirection in this serial with all sorts of clues that point to different suspects.

The misdirection is not just to do with the Whispering Shadow’s identity. There seem to be a lot of people after those jewels, some of whom think they have legitimate claims and some of whom are obviously merely crooks. There are political agendas and it’s not clear precisely who is working for whom. The plot twists are actually reasonably nifty.

The Whispering Shadow is a diabolical criminal mastermind with access to terrifying and murderous technologies such as television. He is also a master of radio technology which is of course invaluable for killing one’s enemies at a distance. This particular serial is a celebration of technology's potential for mayhem!

There are too many flashbacks but you have to remember that you’re supposed to watch a serial like this over a period of twelve weeks, in which case the flashbacks would probably be quite useful. Modern viewers often make the mistake of watching an entire serial over a period of just three or four nights. It doesn’t really work. I try to watch no more than one episode per night and to take a few breaks so that I usually end up watching a twelve-episode serial over a period of maybe two-and-a-half weeks. It makes it a lot more fun.

The acting is very much in the hyper-active B-movie melodrama mode but that’s as it should be in a serial. Malcolm McGregor does make a pretty fair square-jawed action hero. Viva Tattersall overacts delightfully as Professor Strange’s daughter Vera.

The Alpha Video DVD release, on two discs, is unfortunately rather poor. Sound quality is adequate but image quality is definitely not good. On the other hand the other available versions are either public domain or grey market so there’s no reason to think they’d be any better. The Alpha Video release is watchable and if you’re a fan of serials it’s worth putting up with the less-than-stellar picture quality.

If you’re not a fan of serials than The Whispering Shadow is probably not the best place to start. But if you are a fan of serials you should find plenty of enjoyment here. Recommended.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Knight Rider 2000 TV-movie (1991)

The 1991 TV-movie Knight Rider 2000 was shot as the pilot for what was hoped would be a new series based (albeit a little loosely) on the 1980s hit series Knight Rider. Knight Rider 2000 failed to capture anyone’s imagination, it was not picked up as a series and it seems to be generally disliked by fans of the original Knight Rider series.

Despite this it does have some limited interest for cult movie fans and it is a bit more overtly science fictional than the original television series, with a futuristic rather than a contemporary setting.

For what it's worth here’s the link to my review of Knight Rider 2000 at Cult TV Lounge.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

The Green Archer (1961)

The West German film industry was largely kept afloat from the late 50s to the end of the 60s by the extraordinary popularity of the Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, known as krimis. These were made in vast numbers. They were made by several studios but it is generally considered that the best of the krimis were the ones made by Rialto Studios.

The Green Archer (Der grüne Bogenschütze), made by Rialto in 1961, is one of the best known films in the series. It was the only Edgar Wallace krimi directed by Jürgen Roland.

Edgar Wallace had been an incredibly popular writer in the early decades of the 20th century but for some reason he was particularly favoured by German readers, and film adaptations of his works were particularly favoured by German movie audiences. German thriller fans just could not get enough of Wallace’s outrageous and lurid style and his and convoluted multi-layered plots.

The Green Archer is classic Edgar Wallace. A rich American, Abel Bellamy (Gert Fröbe), owns a castle in England. Naturally the castle has a ghost, but this ghost is more interesting than most. The Green Archer had been a notorious medieval outlaw but although he is long dead his ghost remains very active.

Abel Bellamy apparently has a very colourful past which he is not anxious to talk about. He is particularly anxious not to discuss his past with his new neighbours, the Howetts. This is awkward since Valerie Howett (Karin Dor) would very much like to discuss Bellamy’s past with him. Bellamy claims to have no family but this is most certainly untrue.

There are other plot strands that initially appear to have no connection with each other. These other plot strands include the activities of the Green Archer himself, and all seem to lead directly or indirectly back to Abel Bellamy.

This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation there are of course secret passageways and hidden doorways. In fact there’s a veritable secret world beneath Abel Bellamy’s castle. It’s not easy gaining access to this world. Getting out again is even more difficult.

There are plenty of colourful characters and quite a few very delightfully sinister figures, especially the extremely creepy Coldharbour Smith.

The action keeps rolling along and the climax is suitably outrageous and overblown and thoroughly enjoyable.

Despite the complications of the plot Jürgen Roland does a fine job holding things together. At times the movie threatens to collapse under the weight of its own complexity but it doesn’t.

Gert Fröbe is best known to English-speaking audiences as Goldfinger in the film of the same name. He was a terrific actor and he is in splendid form here. He’s definitely the star act here.

Karin Dor makes a fine determined (and very attractive) heroine. Eddi Arendt as usual provides comic relief as television reporter Spike Holland, who finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. Eddi Arendt in an acquired taste but he was a fixture in these films and he’s really rather restrained and quite good in this movie.

Klausjürgen Wussow is the ostensible hero although it takes us a while to figure that out.

Like all the German Edgar Wallace krimis The Green Archer is supposedly set in England. The English locations are totally unconvincing but that doesn’t mater. I like to think that these movies take place in their own alternate reality. It’s an England of the imagination.

One thing you learn when you become a fan of these movies is that it’s best to give up any fantasies you might have of seeing them presented beautifully restored and in anamorphic transfers. It’s not going to happen. As with other European cult movies (such as peplums and eurospy movies) you learn to be grateful to see them at all. While the Sinister Cinema edition of The Green Archer is fullframe it is at least a pretty good print and the chances of a better English-friendly version ever seeing the light of day are just about zero. This is as good as it’s going to get and luckily it’s quite acceptable.

The Green Archer is total insanity and it’s great fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday 22 September 2018

my favourite movie serials

It’s been suggested that I should do a post on my favourite movie serials. So here goes. I’m not going to try to rank them - the serials I’m listing here were all good and all enormous fun. I've provided links here to my full reviews.

King of the Wild (1931), an absolutely outrageous and wonderfully fast-paced Mascot serial with Boris Karloff, guys in gorilla suits, exotic settings in Darkest Africa and the Mysterious East and unbelievable amounts of inspired lunacy. Unbelievably political incorrect.

Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), an excellent Republic serial and a treat for fans of diabolical criminal masterminds bent on wold domination and yes it’s also unbelievably political incorrect.

Flash Gordon (1936), probably the most expensive serial ever made. The Universal science fiction serials were all good but this is the best of them. And in Ming the Merciless it has one of the great screen villains.

Spy Smasher (1942). If it’s a Republic serial directed by William Witney you know you’re in for a treat. Made on a much more modest budget than Universal’s serials but it manages to look very impressive. Incredibly entertaining.

The Mysterious Dr Satan (1940). Another Republic serial. This one has killer robots, a mad scientist and a mysterious masked crime-fighter. Lots of enjoyment to be had here.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe was the third and last of Universal’s insanely successful Flash Gordon serials, being released in 1940.

And it's straight into the action! Earth is being devastated by the Purple Death, a deadly plague. The cause is unknown until Dr Zarkov establishes that it’s spread by a dust and the dust is dropped by spaceships from another planet. Dr Zarkov, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden set off for the planet Mongo to investigate. On arrival there they find that the Emperor Ming is still very much alive and he’s up to his old tricks again.

Flash and his party join up with their old friend and ally Prince Barin.

Ming’s death dust is bad enough but his scientists have come up with an evil new twist - a death dust that only kills intelligent strong-willed people (the sorts of people who might pose a threat to Ming’s authority) but it spares unintelligent weak-willed people (who make useful slaves).

Ming has acquired a new enemy, Queen Fria. Which means Flash has acquired a new ally. Fria’s icy kingdom of Frigia is vital since it is the only source of the antidote to Ming’s death dust. But no-one born outside her kingdom can survive the bitter cold there - unless Dr Zarkov can find a way to counteract the cold.

Flash and his party face all manner of terrors including Ming’s dreaded mechanical men - not just unstoppable robots but walking bombs.

Of course there will be many more perils to face, and for Dale Arden the greatest peril of all - Ming the Merciless intends to compel her to be his bride!

There’s plenty of treachery and countless narrow escapes for Flash and his friends. Having survived the peril of murderous cold he will have to face unquenchable fires. Naturally Dale Arden gets captured several times. As well as rescuing Dale Flash will have to rescue Ming’s own daughter Princess Aura who has incurred her father’s wrath by marrying his rival Prince Barin.

Quite a few secret weapons make their appearance. The climax will come with the discovery of Ming’s greatest secret of all, which Flash will have to find a way to counter.

Science fiction was by no means a new genre in the late 30s but science fiction writers were still tying to get a handle on ways to deal with alien races. A few writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, had tried to imagine truly alien-looking aliens but it was still extremely common for alien races to be simply humans wearing funny costumes. That’s mostly the approach adopted in the Flash Gordon serials. The rock people seem like an attempt to do more bizarre aliens, until we find out the slightly disappointing truth about them.

Barin’s people are ordinary humans but they dress like Robin Hood’s Merrie Men and carry longbows. These serials have a certain comic-opera feel to them, and also a slight Ruritanian flavour. In fact at times there’s quite a strong flavour of Victorian adventure fiction in the Rider Haggard manner. It’s a weird mix of aesthetic influences but it’s charming and it works. In fact the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials created their very own science fiction aesthetic.

Carol Hughes takes over from Jean Rogers as Dale Arden. She is perhaps not quiue as god as her predecessor. Larry “Buster” Crabbe was at best a moderately competent actor but he was the perfect star for these serials. He was the square-jawed action hero with a great deal of likeability and plenty of charisma and he throw himself into the rôle with commendable dedication.

Charles Middleton gave us one of the great screen villains in the Emperor Ming. Again there’s the odd mix of influences - his performance is outrageously stagey and straight out of a Victorian melodrama but it’s immense fun. Ming also clearly owes a lot to Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu.

The formula is the same one that worked so well in the two earlier Flash Gordon serials. Why change a formula that is working so splendidly?

Universal’s serials were not necessarily the best serials. Some of the Republic serials, such as Spy Smasher, were arguably more exciting and more inventive. It has to be admitted though that Universal’s efforts were extremely good, probably the best actual science fiction serials, and they were certainly the most expensive. They were not made on A-picture budgets but the studio still spend some serious money and Universal’s efforts have a certain gloss to them. Universal didn’t have the kind of money MGM had but they were still a major studio and their science fiction serials were like their gothic horror movies - much more visually ambitious and visually successful than similar efforts by rival studios. Universal weren’t good at everything but what they did well they tended to do very very well indeed.

The gadgetry is delightful - it’s not just outrageous and campy but it manages to be both genuinely campy and genuinely cool. This is what happens when you let loose the art department of a major studio that has already established itself as a specialist in gothic horror and science fiction - you tend to get bold but extremely good results.

Mention should also be made of the spaceships. In the late 1930s no-one had the slightest idea what a spaceship would look like. Most importantly they had no idea what a spacecraft would look like inside. The interiors of these spaceships look like a cross between the crew compartments of a dirigible airship, the flight deck of an airliner and the control room of a submarine.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is enormous fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday 1 September 2018

Count Dracula (TV, 1977)

Count Dracula, the BBC’s 1977 TV version of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, is very much a mixed bag. It has the reputation of being the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which really goes to illustrate the pitfalls of faithful adaptations.

I’m sure there’s no need to say anything about the plot, other than to note that the main change from the novel is that Mina and Lucy are now sisters, and Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are combined into one character (Quincey Holmwood).

There are quite a few problems with this production. We’ll start with the most minor ones first. Richard Barnes as Quincey Holmwood is catastrophically bad. Even I can tell that his Texan accent is outrageously wrong and I’ve never been to Texas, and he’s a terrible actor. Bosco Hogan as Jonathan Harker isn’t much better. In fact for a BBC production the acting in general is surprisingly poor. Frank Finlay is an annoying and uninteresting van Helsing. Susan Penhaligon as Lucy is mostly extremely good, but for some unknown reason it was decided that when she became vampirised she’d become a snarling animal trying to do an impression of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The result is embarrassing for all concerned.

Much bigger problems arise from the attempt to stay close to the novel. Let’s be honest, despite its classic status and its undoubted power, as a novel Dracula is a formless mess. The excessively long running time of 150 minutes exacerbates other weaknesses of the book - it’s too long and badly paced. And the title character is really only a bit player in his own story. Stoker just about gets away with that because the influence of Dracula permeates the whole novel, but in a TV or movie it’s a real problem. One popular solution to this is to place the focus on van Helsing, but this one adopts the  unique approach of making Renfield more or less the central character. The ideal solution is to put the focus on Lucy and Mina, but oddly enough this has rarely been done in a Dracula movie and this one is no exception -  the two potentially most interesting characters remain undeveloped.

There are other problems. The special effects rely heavily on solarisation which gives it a very dated feel, and while the sets are reasonably good they’re not especially interesting. There are one or two inspired visual moments though, particularly the scene with the cross  outlined by light on Dracula’s face.The class hostility which is one of the central concerns of the novel, the fear and hatred felt by the rising middle class towards what they saw as the decaying and immoral aristocracy, is also sadly unexplored.

Set against these flaws are several major strengths. Focusing on Renfield turned out to be a masterstroke. This is the most complex, most human and most sympathetic Renfield ever. This is helped by Jack Shepherd’s superb acting (he’s even better in the role than Klaus Kinski). And Renfield serves a real purpose, with the battle between good and evil and between body and soul fought out inside this one unfortunate individual.

Louis Jourdan is rather good as Dracula. He’s genuinely sexy, and he’s a very sympathetic figure. Another plus is the unexpectedly erotic charge that this production has. If Lucy wasn’t having an orgasm the first time the Count bit her she was definitely giving a very convincing impression of a woman having an orgasm. Mina’s response to Dracula’s attentions is equally sexual. The Count offers Lucy and Mina sexual bliss and eternal life, eternal life with a very good-looking and utterly charming nobleman. It seems like a pretty good deal to me, and a lot better than what the good guys are offering them. This makes it all the sadder that the characters of the two women aren’t explored in more depth.

This version also puts more emphasis than usual on the religious aspects of the struggle between the opposing parties, with Renfield used to highlight the fact that the fundamental issue is a choice between body and soul. It’s a valid approach, although it would have been more convincing if the other characters seemed to share Renfield’s concern with the significance of the soul, and if they really appeared conscious of the spiritual dimensions of the fight they were waging.

The fact that Dracula isn’t portrayed as a monster does serve as an advantage, since it makes the struggle less clearcut. Although perhaps it ends up by making it too difficult to feel any real sympathy at all for the vampire hunters.

Despite its faults this version is worth a look. Jack Shepherd’s performance as Renfield is sufficient on its own to make it worth seeing. And if you like your vampires charming and sexy then you’re going to love Louis Jourdan.

Despite a few reservations this one is recommended.

Friday 17 August 2018

Sandokan the Great (1963)

Sandokan the Great is a rollicking and rather stylish adventure tale of pirates but with a number of features that make it quite different from the usual run of pirates movies. Firstly the action takes place in the South China Sea and the jungles of Borneo, a long long way from the Spanish Main. And secondly, the British are very much the bad guys.

This 1963 Italian/French/Spanish co-production was directed by Umberto Lenzi and was based on the first of the Sandokan novels, The Tigers of Mompracem, by 19th century Italian writer Emilio Salgari.

Steve Reeves stars as the brave and daring Malay pirate Sandokan. With Reeves as the star you might be expecting this to be a kind of peplum but with a 19th century setting and perhaps that’s not all that far from the mark.

The plot of the movie is only loosely based on the novel but it captures the spirit quite effectively. Sandokan’s father is the rajah of a small principality in Borneo but he has been deposed by the British who intend to execute him. Sandokan has no intention of allowing them to get away with that sort of thing and if stopping them means taking on the might of the British Empire then that’s how it’s going to be.

Sandokan’s first move is a raid on the fortified house of the British commander at Fort VIctoria, Lord Guillonk. He kidnaps Lord Guillonk’s niece Mary Ann. She is outraged by the thought of being kidnapped by pirates. On the other hand Sandokan is very handsome and very dashing and pirates are kinda sexy so maybe being kidnapped isn’t quite so bad as it seemed at first.

Sandokan’s right-hand man, the Portuguese adventurer Yanez (Andrea Bosic), also points out to her (quite correctly) that given the nature of British colonial policy the British are in no position to complain about the ethics of piracy. And since they did murder most of Sandokan’s family it’s perhaps not surprising that Sandokan is not a fan of the British. Yanez also points out that Sandokan’s followers have been forced into piracy by the policies of the European colonial powers. This little scene is important because Sandokan is the hero of the film and we need to know that he is one of the good guys.

Sandokan is now being hunted by Lord Guillonk’s men and he sets off to cross the island, which means braving unexplored swamps and jungles, a challenging enough feat but even more difficult with Mary Ann in tow and with Yanez not fully recovered from a bullet wound.

The Sandokan of the novel is an inspiring and charismatic leader but also impulsive and inclined to errors of judgment. He’s a lot more mercurial than his film counterpart. Steve Reeves has decided instead to go for dignity and quiet authority. It’s a perfectly valid approach and his performance is more than adequate. In fact it’s pretty good. There are some hints of Sandokan’s chronic over-confidence - his plan to cross the island in the face of impassable swamps and headhunters was not a terrifically great idea. Sandokan’s men have absolute confidence in him but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he always knows what he’s doing.

Geneviève Grad as Mary Ann is a likeable enough heroine. Leo Anchóriz is suitably malevolent as the dastardly villainous Lord Guillonk.

Although this is a pirate movie there are no sea battles. Presumably the budget wasn’t sufficient to contemplate anything so ambitious. The main problem is that the pacing drags a bit in the middle. On the other hand when the action starts to pick up towards the end it’s worth the wait. The final battle scenes are quite spectacular.

What is particularly impressive is the way the fortunes of war keep swinging wildly back and forth in the last portion of the film. Every time things are looking up for Sandokan it all falls apart again and then just when it’s obviously entirely hopeless his uncanny luck kicks in and he’s back on top again. It’s all suitably nail-biting but it’s more than that. While by this stage the movie has long since abandoned the plot of the novel these outrageous swings of fortune are totally consistent with the Sandokan of the novel. There is nothing rational or calculating about him - he’s a man who is always prepared to put his faith in fate. If God wills it he will survive and keep fighting. His absolute fatalism makes him a fascinatingly non-European style of hero.

Director Umberto Lenzi tried his hand at just about every low-budget genre at some stage (and he would return to jungle settings in controversial fashion with his cannibal movies  later in his career). He does a solid if not overly inspiring job here. The location shooting in Sri Lanka is impressive. It gives the movie an authentically exotic feel.

The danger with the anti-colonialist message (which is there in Salgari’s novel as well) is the very real danger of succumbing to excessive preachiness. That’s something I always intensely dislike in any film, whether I agree with the message or not. I don’t find it to be a problem here, possibly because the British are depicted as over-the-top melodrama villains.

While most of the plot points are clear enough it probably is an advantage if you’re familiar with the books. Salgari was, and to some extent still is, extremely popular on the Continent and there had been several earlier movies based on his books so the screenwriters probably assumed that most European viewers would have some acquaintance with Sandokan.

The Warner Archive DVD-R offers an extremely nice anamorphic transfer and that’s important because this movie, shot in Technicolor and in the Cinemascope aspect ratio, relies a great deal on the gorgeous location photography.

Sandokan the Great has some major things in its favour, namely the unusual and exotic setting and the even more unusual and exotic hero. These things, along with the bravura extended action finale, are enough to compensate for a few minor problems of pacing and coherence. On the whole this is an enjoyable adventure flick. Highly recommended.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Time Travelers (TV-movie, 1976)

Time Travelers is pretty unusual - you don't get many collaborations between Irwin Allen and Rod Serling. It’s a TV-movie that was actually made in 1976 as a pilot for a projected Irwin Allen television series that never eventuated.

What's most surprising about this production is that it's actually quite a decent (and even moderately intelligent) science fiction movie.

Here's the link to my review on Cult TV Lounge.

Saturday 28 July 2018

Carry On Regardless (1961)

Carry On Regardless was the fifth of the Carry On films. It was released in 1961.

Carry On films in general are not renowned for complex plotting but this one is almost entirely plotless. It’s actually nothing more than a series of sketches. That’s not really a problem. The quality of the sketches is variable but most are fairly amusing. The extraordinarily strong cast helps a good deal.

The premise is that a group of desperate unemployed people have answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Helping Hands Agency. The agency is run by Bert Handy (Sid James). The agency claims to be able to provide people to do just about any temporary job that can be imagined. Naturally the enthusiastic but hapless assortment of misfits assembled by Bert Handy usually manage to make a fairly spectacular mess of things.

They create mayhem in a hospital, on a railway station, and at an Ideal Home Exhibition. They almost manage to break up numerous marriages. They are hopeless enough when sent to the correct assignments but when the scheduling system at the Helping Hands office goes awry and they start getting sent to the wrong assignments it all becomes total chaos.

There are some quite clever moments, and even some inspired ones such as the marvellous spoof of The 39 Steps (including the famous Forth Bridge train scene).

This film has most of the early Carry On regulars - Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques. This was the final appearance by Terence Longdon who’d been made in most of the early Carry Ons and it’s the first appearance by the delightful Liz Fraser who ended up making four Carry On films. Sid James had joined the team in the previous entry, Carry On Constable, and was already becoming the star player.

The episodic format of this film meant that there were appearances in minor rôles by a truly extraordinary wealth of British comic talent - Patrick Cargill, Sydney Tafler, Fenella Fielding (who was later to be a memorable sexpot in Carry On Screaming), Eric Pohlmann, Howard Marion-Crawford and countless others.

A particular highlight is the appearance by Stanley Unwin. Unwin was a unique comic talent. His trademark was his ability to speak fluent Unwinese. This was a private nonsense language he’d invented. What made it clever was that it wasn’t mere gibberish. There was a system to the way he mangled ordinary words and it was always on the borderline between making sense and not making sense. You could more or less figure out what he was saying even when you couldn’t understand a single actual word. And it sounded like a real language and had a rhythm to it. Unwinese is used very cleverly in this film.

There’s some mildly risque stuff but it’s rather tame compared to the later Carry Ons. One of the fascinating things about the Carry On series is that they were made over a time period (1958 to 1978) that saw censorship go from being quite strict to being almost non-existent. At first it seemed like a good thing. The Carry Ons were arguably at their peak from about 1964 (Carry On Spying) to 1971 (Carry On Henry). They were able to get away with being cheerfully naughty without descending to crassness. By the late 70s crassness was becoming the order of the day and the decline of British comedy was well and truly under way. Comedy needs some limits. It needs some discipline.

Of course this time period also charts the long sad tragic decline of the British film industry which was booming in the late 50s and had become a walking corpse by the late 70s.

This is possibly the most good-natured film of the series with the crew of misfits at the Helping Hands Agency actually having a certain camaraderie and even a certain affection for one another.

On the whole the format of loosely linked sketches works well and it helps to keep the pacing brisk.

The ITV Studios DVD (part of their Carry On Ultimate Collection boxed set) offers a very good anamorphic transfer and the extras include an audio commentary featuring Liz Fraser (who interestingly enough blames the Carry On movies for wrecking her career!) and Terence Longdon.

Carry On Regardless is perhaps not one of the very best of the Carry On movies but it’s far from being the worst. In fact it's unfairly underrated. It’s consistently amusing and it can certainly be recommended.

Thursday 19 July 2018

The Thing (1982)

John W. Campbell's classic 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There? was first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks in 1951, under the title The Thing from Another World. This is a much-revered 50s sci-fi movie although if you’re familiar with Campbell’s novella it’s a bit disappointing. Given the enormous influence that the films of Howard Hawks had on his work it’s not altogether surprising that in 1982 John Carpenter chose to do a remake, to be titled simply The Thing. Carpenter decided to stick rather more closely to Campbell’s story.

The movie opens in spectacular but enigmatic fashion, with a helicopter pursuing a dog over an icy landscape. The helicopter is piloted by a crazed Norwegian and it lands at a U.S. base in Antarctica. The helicopter has come from a nearby Norwegian base and when a group of the Americans checks out the Norwegian base they begin to get an inkling of the horror about to engulf them. Those Norwegians found a wrecked spaceship and they awakened something that had been sleeping in the ice for a hundred thousand years. That something is a shape-shifting monster.

This is essentially a paranoia story, with the paranoia made considerably worse by isolation and claustrophobia. Bad weather conditions mean the U.S. base is out of contact with the outside world. And that monster can take on the appearance of any living thing. Any of the twelve crew members at the case could have been taken over by the monster and there is absolutely no way of telling. It’s an inherently frightening idea and Carpenter extracts every ounce of terror from it.

The problem for these guys at the base is not the usual horror movie problem of how to destroy the monster, although obviously they need to do that as well. Mostly though they need to find a way to tell who’s been infected and who hasn’t, and that’s almost impossible to do.

The monster is certainly terrifying but it’s also fascinatingly ambiguous. It’s not actually evil.  It just wants to survive. It intends to do whatever it takes in order to survive. It’s like any kind of predator. To survive it has to kill. From our point of view it’s evil, but then from the point of a prey species a predator does seem evil. The monster is also absolutely and implacably alien.

The movie is about the monster but mostly it’s about the men who have to face its onslaught. They’re not soldiers and they’re not heroes. They are to some extent misfits, because after all spending very long periods of time cut off from civilisation in the middle of Antarctica is the kind of thing that is inevitably going to attract misfits. They have to function as part of a team but it doesn’t come naturally to them. They are afraid and they are suspicious. Faced with an appalling situation they have to do the best they can. Some of them do poorly and some perform fairly well.

It’s also about leadership, but it doesn’t approach the subject in the familiar Hollywood sort of way. Helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) ends up as leader because he’s the only one who is both willing to take the job on and capable of doing so. He doesn’t suggest putting the matter to a vote. When it becomes necessary he simply takes over. His main qualifications for the job are his ability to assess the situation in a brutally realistic manner and to take whatever steps need to be taken. If that requires shooting someone who gets in his way then he’s quite prepared to do so. He’s a leader, not a contestant in a popularity contest. He doesn’t care if he’s obeyed out of fear rather than love, as long as he’s obeyed. He’s really a quiet inoffensive kind of guy but he knows what has to be done and he accepts the consequences.

There is one weakness which Carpenter alludes to in the audio commentary - there are twelve main characters and they’re not very well defined. There are a number of characters who really serve no purpose other than to distract and confuse the audience. Eliminating two or three of the characters would have enabled the remaining characters to be developed in a bit more depth.

Having said this I have to add that the acting is generally extremely good.

This is a visually stunning movie. It’s not just the special effects. The location photography is gorgeous, the sets are terrific, Dean Cundey’s cinematography is breathtaking. This was Carpenter’s first big-budget major studio movie and every penny of the budget is well spent. There are also some extraordinary action scenes with as many explosions as an action fan could wish for, and some very cool flamethrower sequences.

One of the things that makes this film so visually arresting is the constant juxtaposition of ice and fire. Fire is virtually the only effective weapon against the monster and fire seems particularly menacing in a landscape of snow and ice and bitter cold. And there’s no question that explosions look particularly impressive in an icy landscape.

The Thing proved to be a bit of a box-office disaster. Various reasons have been suggested for this. My feeling is that this movie has an identity crisis. The outrageous totally over-the-top gore tends to mark this down as a trashy drive-in movie for teenagers. But it’s not a trashy drive-in movie for teenagers. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent and rather serious science fiction movie exploring some interesting themes. It’s a movie about men under extreme pressure, it’s about fear and suspicion, it’s about trust and what happens when trust becomes impossible, it’s about doing what has to be done even when it’s very unpleasant. But what audiences tended to notice was the violence and the gore.

This movie is also notable for having not a single female character, not even in a bit part, for which it was (quite absurdly) attacked by some critics.

The Thing looks great on Blu-Ray. There’s more than one Blu-Ray release. There’s a barebones release and there’s a special edition release with lots of special features. That’s the one to go for because, among other extras, it includes an audio commentary by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell and their commentaries are always a joy.

The Thing’s reputation has grown considerably since its release. Despite the excessiveness of the gore it’s an extremely fine exercise in science fiction horror and it’s highly recommended.