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.