Wednesday 25 April 2018

Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1960)

I’m rather fond of the peplum genre but it has to be said that on the whole these are movies that you don’t want to try to take too seriously. Mostly they’re enjoyable as silly fun. Colossus and the Amazon Queen (the original title is La regina delle Amazzoni) dates from 1960 and is slightly unusual in that it was intended from the word go as a comedic take on the genre.

The dubbed version which hit the U.S. in 1964 pushes the comic elements even further, in fact it arguably pushes them a little too far.

This movie is also a bit unusual in that its star (or at least one of its two stars) went on to have a real career. That star was Australian Rod Taylor and in the same year that he made Colossus and the Amazon Queen he also made the movie that made him a legitimate movie star, that movie being The Time Machine.

Pirro (Rod Taylor) and Glauco (Ed Fury) are the two heroes. Pirro has the brains while Glauco has the muscles. At least Pirro thinks he’s the one with the brains. They’re broke and Pirro grabs what seems to him to be a great opportunity to earn some easy money. All they have to do is undertake a sea voyage and act as watchmen. The difficult part is tricking Glauco into going along with the idea but Pirro has plenty of experience in such matters.

Everything seems to be going well. They land on a remote island where lots of gold is waiting for them and the rest of the crew. There’s also a feast laid out with plenty of fine wine. Unfortunately the wine is drugged. They’ve been tricked but it’s worse than that - they have been sold to the Amazons. And the Amazons have only one use for men.

This is a Battle of the Sexes movie but with the roles reversed. The women are the warriors and are in control. The men are effeminate slaves who spend their time gossiping and are treated like pets. That is the fate awaiting Pirro, Glauco and their pals.

A worse fate may be in store for Glauco. He has offended the captain of the guard and she wants him put to death.

The Queen of the Amazons is anxious to give up her throne. All the other amazons are allowed to have men but the queen must remain chaste and she’s getting rather tired of chastity. There are two deadly rivals competing for the succession.

And of course there are plenty of romantic complications in store as well. The amazon women are all somewhat man-crazy. There are also some pirates who are mostly there so as to provide the obligatory climactic battle scene.

It’s very hard to judge comedy when it’s been dubbed. The original script might well have been quite witty. The dubbed version goes for broad comedy. Mostly it doesn’t succeed in being especially funny but it does manage to be seriously weird. This movie takes high camp as far as it can be taken and then some. There are some awesomely camp dance sequences. There’s also a cheerful disregard for period. The story is supposed to take place not long after the Trojan War but then we get some medieval jousting, not to mention the jazz-inspired dancing (and even without the jazzy score added for the dubbed version the dance routines are clearly jazz-inspired).

The costumes are absurd but they are amusingly bizarre.

The cast clearly understood that subtlety was not required in their performances.

One of the great things about movies of the past is that the film-makers did not agonise over whether their films might offend somebody. This is a rather good-natured movie on the whole but it sure isn’t politically correct.

Colossus and the Amazon Queen is available on DVD from Retromedia in a two-movie pack paired with Goliath and the Sins of Babylon. Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is an excellent film and it gets a pretty decent anamorphic transfer. Sadly the transfer for Colossus and the Amazon Queen is pan-and-scanned and definitely not so good.

It’s generally rather unfair to deliver a harsh judgment on a movie when you’re seeing it in a poorly dubbed version plus the print is not in great condition and to top it all off it’s pan-and-scanned but I think it’s still reasonable to say that this is a pretty bad movie. Despite this it has a certain goofy charm. It’s a bit like a beach party movie in that you have to be in the right mood but I found it to be oddly enjoyable. Recommended, if you have a high tolerance for camp.

Sunday 15 April 2018

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

The Monster That Challenged the World, produced by Gramercy Pictures and released through United Artists, is essentially a stock-standard 1950s American monster movie, its main distinguishing feature being that it’s fairly competently executed.

The U.S. Navy has a research establishment on the Salton Sea. They do all sorts of things there, including the testing of parachutes. Navy personnel make parachute jumps into the Salton Sea and are then recovered by boat. It’s all routine stuff, until three men are killed. Why they died is a mystery but it’s what happened to their bodies that is worrying.

Lieutenant Commander John Twillinger (Tim Holt) is not happy about it. He’s a guy who does things by the book and doesn’t take chances so he advises the local sheriff to close the beaches (to the disgust of the locals since it’s the height of the tourist season). And he sends some samples to Dr Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) at the laboratory at the base.

The results are puzzling. Even more puzzling to Dr Rogers is the radioactivity. He’s pretty sure the Navy hasn’t been doing anything that would explain the radioactivity, but there it is.

And then more people start dying.

It’s a nice slow buildup. We know something terrible is happening but at this stage we have no idea what it might be. As always what you don’t know and what you don’t see are more frightening than the things you do know and see. This is something that makers of horror movies keep learning, and then forgetting.

Of course eventually comes the dreaded moment when the monster has to be shown. Since the monster in question is a giant carnivorous mollusc one expects the worst but it’s actually not too bad. And the special effects in general are very good. There is real creepiness here. It was a standard feature of monster movies of the era to have the Scientist giving an expository lecture and showing a little film to explain things to the other characters. In this movie Dr Rogers has a little film about the very unpleasant habits of molluscs and I have to say that it enhances the creepiness fact quite a bit. It makes you really not want to encounter a gigantic mollusc.

Even after the monster is revealed this movie still relies on building suspense and genuine terror rather than just the slightly silly mayhem you so often get in this genre. Director Arnold Laven understands pacing as well and on the whole this is a pretty well-made film. The ending is very expertly handled. It’s also a bit more grisly than most 50s monster flicks. And even the hero shows real fear at times, a hero of course not being someone who is without fear but someone who can be afraid and still do his job.

There are some intriguing foreshadowings of a much more famous later movie, a movie about a deadly shark made by some guy called Spielberg.

And there’s some decent underwater photography. This was obviously a B-picture, but just as obviously it was made on a slightly more generous budget than usual.

The acting is well above the standard you expect in a monster movie. Tim Holt is very good as Lt. Cmdr. Twillinger, a character with a bit of complexity (by monster movie standards). He’s a man who pushes others, and himself, very hard. He’s a bit of a martinet and not overly popular with the men under his command. This seems to be just the way he approaches his job since he can be quite affable with civilians. He’s not an obviously sympathetic hero type but right from the start we respect his professionalism.

Hans Conried is not an actor you expect to find playing things straight but that’s how he plays Dr Rogers and it works pretty well. The supporting players are all competent.

The Salton Sea, a huge saltwater lake in the middle of the desert in southern California,  is a good choice as a setting for this type of movie. In the movie at least it has a rather brooding feel to it (particularly at the beginning). The All American Canal System also features prominently and is used just as effectively.

While other giant critter sci-fi horror movies gained cult followings The Monster That Challenged the World ended up being pretty much forgotten. This is both surprising and unfair because this happens to be a well above-average example of the breed.

I caught this film on TV and happily it was a very good letterboxed print. It’s been released on DVD and more recently on Blu-Ray as well.

The Monster That Challenged the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Drácula (1931, the Spanish version)

In 1931 if you wanted to reach non-English speaking markets dubbing and subtitling were not options. You had to shoot a second version of the film. In 1931 Universal decided to shoot a Spanish language version of Dracula as well as the Tod Browning-directed English-language version, and to do the two films simultaneously, using the same sets. Browning shot his version during the day. At night George Melford and his crew shot the Spanish version. A legend has grown up that this Spanish version is superior to the English language version and some versions of the legend even go so far as to claim that Melford’s Spanish Drácula is the great horror film that Browning’s film should have been.

Unfortunately it just isn’t true. The Spanish version certainly has its virtues. Melford and his cinematographer George Robinson equal and in many cases surpass the visual brilliance of the Browning-Karl Freund version.

On the whole the acting is slightly better. Lupita Tovar is a more lively and more sexy heroine than Helen Chandler, Barry Norton is much less annoying than David Manners and Eduardo Arozamena is a less stilted Van Helsing. The atmosphere is less stuffy.

There are however some very big problems with the Spanish language version. The first is that Pablo Álvarez Rubio is just a bit too over-the-top as Renfield while failing to achieve the levels of creepiness that Dwight Frye reaches.

A much bigger problem is the absence of Lugosi. Carlos Villarías is, quite simply, an awful Dracula. He grimaces continually but rather than being scary it simply makes the Count seem ridiculous. More seriously he lacks Lugosi’s presence. Lugosi could make Dracula ingratiatingly charming and genuinely sinister. Villarías just seems hyperactive and silly. The more menacing he tries to be the sillier he seems.

Yet another problem is that this version is half an hour longer than the English-language version. Melford was obviously determined to shoot every scene that was in the shooting script. The trouble is that almost all of the extra scenes he shot were unnecessary, and they’re mostly very dialogue-heavy and they make Tod Browning’s leisurely paced film seem brisk and economical.

Melford’s film, despite its visual splendours, also cannot avoid the stagebound feel that was a basic flaw in the script. The initial mistake made by Universal was to adapt the (admittedly very commercially successful) stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel. Both versions of the film are for much of their running times too much like filmed plays. Of course it has to be said that Stoker’s novel has its problems too.

Being able to utilise the same sets as Browning’s movie was obviously a huge advantage. For very little money (a budget of just over $60,000) Universal got a movie that looks like an A-picture.

The Spanish version is certainly interesting. It’s fascinating to see the slightly different ways that essentially the same scenes were shot and to see the ways in which Melford and Robinson were often able to improve on the original (they had the further advantage of being to see the dailies of Browning’s film and so of course could see what worked and what didn’t).

Overall however it has to be said that Tod Browning’s Dracula (which I reviewed yesterday), even with its flaws, is the better film. If you’re going to make a vampire movie you have to have the right actor to play the vampire and Lugosi was the right actor, and (sadly) Carlos Villarías wasn’t.

The Spanish-language Drácula is included as an extra on both Blu-Ray and DVD releases of Dracula. Apart from one reel it looks terrific. English subtitles are of course provided.

It is definitely worth seeing even if it’s even more flawed than Tod Browning’s version.

Dracula (1931)

I’ve seen Universal’s 1931 Dracula quite a few times and it’s never impressed me but since I now own it on Blu-Ray I thought I’d give it another try.

Of course the biggest single problem with this movie is that it was so influential and has been imitated, quoted, homaged and parodied so many times. Everything about the movie became a horror movie cliché. What you have to keep always in mind is that in 1931 these were not clichés. At the time of its release this film was new, fresh and exciting. While Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu was the first vampire movie for the vast majority of viewers in 1931 the Universal Dracula would have been their first exposure to the vampire film. In its day it had genuine shock value. It was not just the horror content but also the sexual implications. Dracula’s victims are almost all female and there is a very strong element of seduction in his hunting of his victims.

While Bram Stoker’s novel was well known and the stage adaptation had been very successful it’s also fair to say that most of the plot elements that are now so very familiar would have been new to most of the movie’s initial audience.

Dracula also marked the first appearance of the Universal gothic aesthetic. While that aesthetic would itself become something of a cliché there’s no question that in 1931 this movie must have been an extraordinary visual experience.

So in order to have any chance of appreciating this movie you have to try to forget all those imitations and parodies and just judge it on its own merits.

This naturally also applies to Bela Lugosi’s performance.

This at least is what I tried to do this time and it did help, to some extent at least.

The first twenty minutes is in my view as good as anything you’ll see in any gothic horror movie. We’re told what we need to know in very economical fashion but mostly the focus is  on building the atmosphere. Which is accomplished with outstanding success. There are just so many superb visual moments in this early part of the film. The first scene in the crypt below Dracula’s castle, the first glimpse of an undead hand opening a coffin lid, the celebrated scene on the staircase when Renfield first encounters the Count, the wonderfully eerie scenes with the three brides of Dracula - all absolutely superb.

After the first twenty minutes the scene shifts from Transylvania to England and the movie starts to lose impetus. There are not quite so many opportunities for visual pyrotechnics and upper-class English drawing rooms just aren’t as wonderfully spooky as medieval Transylvanian castles. There are still some very striking images but as the movie relies increasingly on dialogue rather than mood it becomes much less interesting.

There is a school of thought that the strengths of this movie are due to brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund while its weaknesses are the responsibility of director Tod Browning. That might be going too far but certainly the visuals are consistently superior to the story-telling. In fact there are accounts of the making of the movie that suggest that Browning had little interest in proceedings. That would certainly explain the fact that the movie loses direction halfway through and never quite gets back on track.

Lugosi almost single-handedly created our idea of the film vampire - aristocratic, cultured, exotic and very theatrical. The cape, the middle European accent, the piercing stare, pretty much all the stereotypical vampire characteristic go back to Lugosi. In Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu (an unauthorised adaptation of Stoker’s novel) Max Schreck makes the vampire bestial and rather disgusting. It’s a powerful performance in its own way but Scheck’s vampire is a mere monster. In literature there had certainly been aristocratic vampires but it was Lugosi who made the cinematic vampire a gentleman (albeit a slightly creepy gentleman). The many parodies of Lugosi’s performance have made it seem almost ridiculous but that’s perhaps a little unfair. Lugosi would certainly go on to give much better performances (in movies like White Zombie, The Black Cat and The Raven).

The early part of Dracula is very cinematic. Once the Count arrives in England though it becomes more and more simply a filmed stage production, and the performances (including Lugosi’s) become more stagey and much less effective. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing gives a performance that is both overly melodramatic and rather dull. Dwight Frye is certainly memorable as Renfield although again it’s essentially a silent movie performance.

Although I’m inclined to judge it less harshly than in the past overall Browning’s Dracula is still a bit of a disappointment, particularly since the essential ingredients were there for a great horror film, most notably the superb Universal gothic aesthetic and Lugosi as the Count.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release looks very good although the menus are unbelievably aggravating. There are plenty of extras - a couple of documentaries and an audio commentary by David Skal. The most exciting extra though is the Spanish-language Drácula, shot at the same time as the English version. It’s interesting enough to be worth its own post which will follow shortly.