Friday, 9 October 2015

FROM HELL IT CAME




d. Dan Milner (1957)

The image of some creature lumbering out of the woods or jungle to threaten us is a primal fear, a reminder perhaps of harder, wilder times. No wonder that it features in so much of our folklore and mythology and, of course, our films. Where would our films be without screaming girls clutched in the horrible hands of hideous creatures? Nowhere, that’s where.

From Hell It Came is a South Sea Islands variation on the theme, and here the monster is the Tabanga, a malevolent tree stump. The film makers hedge (no pun intended) their bets a little by giving the grim faced tree multiple origins, and it is variously described as a mythical monster, a murdered Prince returning from the grave to exact revenge and a direct result of nuclear testing, but all of that is just incidental detail. What matters most is that the Tabanga is remarkably angry for flora, and immediately sets out on a murderous rampage.

The killer tree is notable for its permanent scowl, its indiscriminate and versatile approach to violence, and for the fact that it resembles something that they might put in a kids playground at a Halloween themed Wetherspoons. It eventually ends up in ‘the quicksand at the edge of the jungle’, a fairly predictable conclusion given that everyone in the cast says ‘the quicksand at the edge of the jungle’ at least once, just in case we miss the fact that it’s there. One primal fear down, 35,000 to go*.

* An arbitrary number, as thinking of primal fears was starting to freak me out. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

KRONOS




d. Kurt Neumann (1957)

When a huge asteroid crashes into the ocean, a crack scientific team are called out to investigate. What they don’t know, however, is that the asteroid is actually a UFO, and that the director of their scientific laboratory has been taken over by aliens, a race of people who have expended their own resources and are now travelling the universe seeing what they can steal from other planets. The aliens live by consuming energy: electrical, atomic, they’re not bothered, they just need lots of it and they don’t care where and how they get it.

To this end, they unleash an enormous, incredible machine onto the world, tall, black, metal, like a modernist sculpture of two water cisterns welded together. When the aliens are hungry, Kronos (as it is dubbed by one of the scientists – he knows his mythology, but can’t spell) rises up on hydraulic metal legs and more or less pogoes over to the next available power station and sucks it dry, crushing screaming peasants in his path. 

Can it be stopped? Well, yeah. For Dr Who fans, the solution is so obvious it’s amazing it takes the scientists and their computer SUSIE (Synchro Unifying Sinometric Integrating Equitensor) so long to come up with it: they reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.

Friday, 25 September 2015

THE BURGLAR











d. Paul Wendkos (1957)

'We, the dead, welcome you'.

 
Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea, weary as hell) is a career criminal, a break in expert. He has never been caught, never been photographed, never been finger printed. Neither has he ever been particularly successful, living in a series of crummy rooms in slummy streets, eking out a living for himself and his adopted sister, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield!). They are in love with each other, but something always gets in the way: life, usually, and Nat’s higher sense of obligation and morality to the girl he has looked after since she was a kid. Maybe if things were different they could be happy, live a different life. Maybe. Nat is like a sleepwalker, locked into himself, indifferent to almost everything apart from the instinct to put one foot in front of the other. Even love is a burden. 

Nat decides that he needs a big score, so forms an ‘organisation’: him, Gladden, a whining weakling called Baylock and a sleazy psychopath called Dohmer. Together they steal a sapphire necklace from a shifty spiritualist called Sister Phoebe. It’s worth a cool $150,000, and they think they can get $80,000 for it. What they actually get is death, hunted down by a crooked cop who wants the necklace for himself.

As you might expect from a film noir based, like Nightfall, on a book by arch fatalist David Goodis, The Burglar is dark, inky black in places. The characters are lost causes, stuck on predetermined routes to sordid ends. They all need someone to talk to, someone to listen. They will end up unsung, unremembered, unburied, left in crumpled heaps or in hastily dug holes by the side of the road. The drama is played out in huge sudden close ups and in flashing action cuts, all to the blaring of an occasionally intrusive brass and vibes score. Everything about this grim little story is played big, as if it mattered, as if any of it mattered.
At the climax, in the bustling amusement arcades and tourist attractions of Atlantic City (‘the playground of the world’) the characters play out their last scenes in sudden isolation, as if they are the only people on the planet. In the end, Nat finally gets what he wanted all along: he is put of his misery. Gladden survives, the only one young enough and innocent enough to still have a shot at something else, at someone else. What happens to the necklace? Who cares?

Friday, 18 September 2015

NIGHTFALL












d. Jacques Tourneur (1957)

'That's your whole trouble, you know that? The top of your head never closed up when you were a kid. Neither did your mouth.'

Film Noir often hinges on coincidence or, perhaps more in keeping with the idiom, dumb luck. Nightfall contains a plot that is so convoluted it can scarcely be believed - but it works, it just works, and it makes for the most under-rated film I know.

I'm not going to summarise the story, other than to say it comes from the typewriter of arch pulp writer David Goodis and involves $350,000 of stolen money, a murder, two ruthless villains, a beautiful girl and an innocent man trying to clear his name, played by that most believable of fall guys, Aldo Ray*. Most of the action plays out in Wyoming, a stunning looking state of deep snow, tall mountains and great swathes of beautiful wilderness. It's not quite breathless, but it is relentless, a film of great verve and energy and momentum that is greatly aided by superb performances from just about everyone in the cast.   

I'm pretty sure that the Coen brothers watched this film before they wrote Fargo. It's by no means a rip off, but there are too many recurring elements for it to be a coincidence: a man running across a snow covered field; money buried, waiting for a thaw; a double act of killers who hate and mistrust each other, one voluble, almost reasonable, the other a psychopath; bloody death by machinery (a snow plough here, not a wood chipper). It's not a problem, it's just interesting. The Coen's clearly know their stuff, or, at least, they did: they've ploughed a very arid furrow indeed since The Big Lebowski.  

* Aldo Ray is great. Tall, heavy set, tough, but with a broken, raspy voice and blue eyes that seem permanently on the verge of tears. When he smiles, he looks about six years old. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN












d. Charles Barton (1940)

What a great villain Peter Lorre was. Here, he plays a man involved in 'the dirtiest racket ever invented': white slavery. His modus operandi is to recruit parolees, offering them a home and a job, before flying them to his private fiefdom, Dead Man's Island (there's a clue there, really) where he chains the men together and forces them to mine for diamonds until they expire of fatigue, disease or malnutrition or get killed by the brutal guards. 

The diminutive Lorre pads around the island on crepe soled shoes, wearing a boxy lounge suit and a pith helmet. He never stops smoking, and the resentful lighting of his cigarette by underlings is a recurring motif of the power he wields, and the hatred he inspires. He alternates between sudden, hysterical rage and a kind of somnolence, as if he is exhausted with his own evil. There's a telling little scene where he gets in a temper and shoots his housekeeper's monkey (not a euphemism, an actual monkey). Fury spent, his heavily lidded eyes close in ineffable weariness. He has a beautiful wife, who absolutely detests him, so he sits and listens to her play the piano and smokes and smokes and smokes.

A dedicated undercover agent (who apparently spends two years of his life in a state prison to maintain his cover) is on Lorre's tail and soon infiltrates Lorre's operation - and his wife. Interestingly, Lorre knows all about the agent and, in fact, has actively sought him out - in order, perhaps, to facilitate his own downfall.

An undemanding but satisfying film, this is an ideal choice if you like corporal punishment as there are literally lashings of lashings, or if you like to watch people being shot or stabbed in the back, because there's a fair bit of that too. It's undeniably all about Lorre's character, though, and, when he dies, stabbed by his monkey grieving housekeeper, you almost feel sorry for him - but not quite, he's a creepy little bastard and a rotten Boss.

Friday, 4 September 2015

THE CURSE OF THE STONE HAND











d. Jerry Warren (1964)

The Curse Of The Stone Hand only really makes sense if you know the story behind the production, so here it is. Producer Jerry Warren, a man who revelled in his reputation as a hack, grew tired of the expensive and time consuming process of making his own films, so took to buying foreign productions, hacking them to bits and dubbing them, filming a few inserts, recording some narration and putting them out with a sensational new title. It's not art, baby, but it is most definitely commerce.

This film is made up of two other movies, one from Argentina and one from Chile, and there are some new and poorly matched framing sequences making it a sort of poor man's portmanteau, or poormanteau as I have now decided it must be called. 

The first story looks like it might have been quite good in its original form, an occasionally stylish tale of a man who joins a gambling club where the price of membership is to kill or be killed, depending on the turn of a card. The editing is so choppy to render it almost unintelligible, but you are just able to get the gist. It doesn't help that Warren compulsively cuts any scenes that feature more than a couple of lines of dialogue (too hard to dub) and clearly has no idea that Durham is not on the outskirts of London. It's a frustrating experience.

The second story is completely incomprehensible, but is something about a depressive nobleman and the terrible way he treats his family. Again, it looks like it was probably quite well crafted at one time but, apparently cut by a third, the edited version provides little more than movement and sound. There is endless, meaningless narration and new clips of old John Carradine to pad out the running time (and give Warren a directing credit) but none of it helps. The ending, a new sequence, posits the idea that the nobleman locks himself in a basement and paints a series of self-portraits as he dies. It's ridiculous, but his mouldering skeleton provides a minor shock to close on.

So, a terrible film, but a fascinating concept. Warren was clearly some sort of monster but, luckily, he was in the film industry, one of the few professions where that really isn't a problem. It's a shame in many ways, as, every now and again, there are glimpses of a much better film waiting to be coaxed out. Oh well. As Jerry might say 'fuck it, it's only a movie''.  

Friday, 28 August 2015

DEMENTIA 13




d. Francis Ford Coppola (1963)

A rather murky tale of intrigue and murder set in Ireland, the plot revolves around that most baleful of storylines, the death of a child and the terrible, dysfunctional, psychotic effect it has on an already eccentric (and not Irish in the slightest) family.

The young Francis Coppola wrote and directed the film, the culmination of a short apprenticeship with producer and director Roger Corman that had seen him doing anything and everything from editing, dubbing and script writing to the washing up and driving. Corman worked his interns pretty hard, but he was also remarkably astute about talent and very generous with opportunities. When 'The Young Racers' concluded under budget and ahead of schedule, Corman decided to maximise the saving by giving Coppola forty grand, nine days and Samuel Beckett's favourite actor* to make his very own film - as long as it was a bit like Psycho**.

The script (written more or less overnight) is, perhaps not unexpectedly, a little uneven, and the direction is occasionally self-conscious but, overall, it's an impressive achievement, not least because of the atmosphere of sustained dread it creates and some nicely realised underwater shots. There's also a short monologue about a recurring nightmare and incipient madness that makes you stop everything that you're doing to listen to it, including breathing.

* I am referring, of course, to the amazing Patrick Magee, an actor with a sinister voice somewhere between a purr and a croak and an extraordinary intensity. I was going to describe him as immortal, but he died in 1982, and I thought somebody might write in.

** The opportunity turned out to be a parting gift: Corman hated the film, and Coppola went his own way after the test screening.

Friday, 21 August 2015

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE












d. Gene Fowler, Jr (1958)

Despite the sensational title, this is quite sombre, serious stuff. In it, an advance party of aliens arrive on earth and take over the minds and bodies of some of the male inhabitants of a small town. What do they want? Well, their own females have all died in the wake of a nuclear war, so they are after wives and girlfriends, which somehow seems much worse and far more presumptuous than simply zapping everybody to death and taking over the planet.

The aliens here are a fantastic conception, with hideous tentacled faces that are reminiscent of Lovecraft's cephalopod-like Cthulu. Their space suits seemingly provide them with an artificial atmosphere, and glow and vibrate so that they are hard to see, like a hallucination - or a nightmare. The aliens have the husks of their kidnap victims back in the mother ship, hanging mindlessly in the air, hooked up to some sort of transmitting device that allows the aliens to inhabit a facsimile of their bodies and access their memories and thought patterns - and their wives, especially their wives*. 

Even so, the aliens make unconvincing humans, at least as far as their wives are concerned: they can't have kids for a start (their scientists are working on this), dogs and cats hate them and, incredibly for 1950s America, they don't touch alcohol, not even cocktails. Naturally, they don't last long and are ultimately hunted down by a good old fashioned angry mob and killed, collapsing and coalescing into a pool of dirty bubbles as they die.

The final shot is of hundreds of saucers leaving the earth's atmosphere and moving on to the next galaxy: defeated, ugly men, still desperately looking for love.

* In the outwardly prim and proper 1950s, 'marriage' is synonymous with sex. The inference is quite clear: these fucking aliens are fucking our fucking women.

Friday, 14 August 2015

I MARRIED A WITCH












d. Rene Clair (1942)


There's something slightly demented about 1940s comedies. Perhaps its the mix of elegance and slapstick, like panto performed in evening dress, or that the tempo and volume are just on the edge of too fast, too shrill. Either way, they certainly seem strange to me, which is not to say that I don't enjoy them very much.

I Married A Witch is a lovely film, full of good humour and bags of energy, slightly frantic, often chaotic. But there's some darkness in there, too: it starts with the execution of a witch and her warlock father, after all, and is quickly followed by a montage of the misery inflicted on a single family by the dying witch's curse. When the oak tree planted over their graves is hit by lightning their imprisoned spirits are free to wander the earth in the form of smoke - and, even then, they still have revenge on their minds.

The witch is given a body, the beautiful, elfin form of Veronica Lake, with her little girl voice and phenomenal bone structure and, of course, her famous lopsided hair. Her witch is wicked, mischievous, relentless and absolutely adorable. When she drinks a potion intended for her victim (stiff old Frederic March), however, she falls desperately in love with him, a state of events that impairs her powers and incurs the wrath of her much less forgiving father (a surprisingly malevolent presence).

Some things I learned about witches from this film: they live incredibly long lives (the father is half a million years old, his daughter a mere 200 odd thousand); they are responsible for most of the great disasters of history (Pompeii is mentioned); they can reanimate corpses and live inside them (the father does this with the victim of a fire. The body is still hot so, when he sits down, the chair catches alight) and, finally, 'love is stronger than witchcraft' (even if it's love created by witchcraft, apparently). It's all very informative, and beautifully frothy and funny - and marvellously macabre.

Friday, 7 August 2015

THE NAKED WITCH












d. Larry Buchanan (1961)

She's a Witch! And she's naked! Could this film get any better? Well, no, not really as, despite its no budget look and sound (about the standard of a home movie with dialogue recorded on a dictaphone in an aeroplane hanger), it's actually rather good.

Starting off with a ten minute prologue on the history of witches, this film does little wonders with scant resources. Despite some confusion over when the Dark Ages were, the prologue manages to be informative and engaging using only a reverberating voice over, a rostrum camera and a reproduction print of The Triumph Of Death by Peter Bruegel, a work of hideous imagination and horrific detail. 

After this comes an interesting if somewhat familiar tale of resurrection and revenge in the unusual setting of a German community in Texas. When a student rather foolishly pulls the stake out of the heart of the corpse of a long dead witch, the sorceress comes back (naked, and considerably more coiffured and made up than in the flashbacks) to murder the ancestors of her original accuser. It sounds fairly hackneyed and, yep, it's super cheap, but the dialogue is intelligent (although delivered poorly) and the story trajectory comes in at a pleasing angle. Despite the title, there's no smut and the witch is generally obscured by shadow, a negligee or, occasionally, a black smudge on the screen. There is some twilight skinny dipping.

The soundtrack is less successful, mainly sounding like a slightly inebriated man in the corner of the room prodding an over-amplified Bontempi organ but, just before she gets re-staked, the witch does a sensual interpretive dance routine to a really great exotica track, so even that works out in the end.    

So, yes, an unexpected hit. That said, even if it had been appalling I wouldn't have cared, I'm just here to enjoy myself.

Friday, 31 July 2015

THE STORY OF MANKIND












d. Irwin Allen (1957)

We'll start with an announcement: this is the fortieth film I have reviewed on this blog to date, and the first ever to be in colour. Well, I thought it was interesting.  

When I first saw this film at the age of about five or six, it made an indelible impression on me and, for years, I thought it the most incredible epic ever made. Ah, the illusions of youth. Watching it now, this crazy canter through history is clearly cobbled together, with new material filmed on a series of tiny indoor sets heavily supplemented by lots of clips taken from other, much more expensive, films.  

The premise is that mankind has developed a 'super H bomb' around sixty years earlier than expected, so The Supreme Court of Outer Space (yes, that's a thing) holds a tribunal on a piece of mist shrouded celestial wasteland to ascertain whether mankind is capable of holding such power, or whether they should be encouraged to simply detonate this doomsday weapon, thereby extinguishing human life once and for all.

On the side of man: Ronald Colman, distinguished in his London Fog overcoat, tweed hat and silver sliver of facial hair. The prosecuting counsel is Mr. Scratch, the Devil himself, played suavely and convincingly by the superlative Vincent Price in a morning coat and a pair of red silk gloves*. The trial consists of Colman saying how wonderful humans are, and Price saying how terrible they are. Sometimes this is done in reverse order. We see the whole history of the world played out in a semi ironic, high camp series of vignettes starring a variety of ageing stars: the forty something Hedy Lamarr plays the teenage Joan of Arc, for instance; an ancient looking Peter Lorre is the twenty something Nero. As you might expect, Harpo Marx is Isaac Newton**.

Ultimately, the tribunal fails to come to a decision: mankind is as good as it is evil; as noble as it is savage. A pretty fair assessment, really. The court is adjourned and scheduled to reconvene at a later date when, according to Judge Cedric Hardwicke as he glares down the barrel of the camera at the audience, the verdict will be 'UP TO YOU', i.e. stop messing about with nuclear bombs, you jumped up tools.

*  Price is accompanied by his 'apprentice', Nick Cravat: acrobat, mime, circus colleague and film co-star of Burt Lancaster, as well as the nimble fellow in the furry suit on the wing of the plane in the incredible Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. 

**  Chico and Groucho also have roles, as a Monk and Peter Minuit, respectively. Astoundingly, it didn't occur to anyone on the production to put them in a scene together, which really is a crime against the Universe.

Friday, 24 July 2015

THE MAD MAGICIAN













d. John Brahm (1954)

It's the late 19th century, and curly haired Don Gallico (Vincent Price, one of the patron saints of this blog) wants to be a stage magician but, because he is a humble and rather nervous sort of person, he is stuck making tricks for other less talented and far less pleasant performers. When Don's big chance is ruined by his horrible. grasping employer (a man who also stole Gallico's wife and keeps bragging about it), something pings under the pressure (it might located be in his eye, which keeps twitching) and he becomes a committed maniac, wearing homemade masks and murdering people all over the place: by buzz saw, by strangulation, by cremation. 

Like a lot of murderers, once he solves his first problem by killing someone he soon finds that he becomes extremely busy. As the film progresses he becomes less sympathetic, more ruthless, increasingly unhinged and, because this film was originally made in 3D, he also has to keep throwing stuff at the audience, too - playing cards, water, flames, sawdust - it's just a relief that there are no sex scenes.

The Mad Magician is reminiscent of director John Brahm's earlier film Hangover Square (1939), even down to the scene where Gallico disposes of a corpse using a handily placed bonfire. The great Mr. Price gets to play several roles under a variety of latex disguises but reserves his best characterisation for 'The Great Gallico', a shy guy who is simply too nice for show business, and too crazy to live. 

The film is also worth watching if you have ever wondered what Zsa Zsa Gabor did before she became Zsa Zsa Gabor: she was an actress, apparently, though not so you'd notice. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

THE MOLE PEOPLE













d. Virgil W. Vogel (1956) 


The Mole People is a legendary b-movie, a sort of barometer of the psychotronic. It's cheap, ridiculous and has men grown dressed up as moles - but it is also inventive and entertaining and commits itself fully to the endeavour. There is no smirking, no camp, no sense that this film (about the discovery of a race of evil Sumerians who have survived for 5,000 years by living under an active volcano) is anything other than the greatest story ever told. This sense of purpose, this dogged belief, is essential in the creation of great b-movies, as any doubt or irony always shows on screen.

There's very little to dislike about this film, even if you're a historian, a Sumerian or, perhaps, even a mole. A catalogue of simple pleasures: the brief prologue in which the enthusiastic and engaging Dr. Frank Baxter runs through some hollow earth theories and introduces the film as a fable; the Sumerians themselves who still wear ancient costumes and have genetically mutated after years underground to become albinos, so much so that they are terrified by electric torches and are burned to death by direct sunlight; the fact that they have enslaved the original inhabitants of the volcano, the Molemen,  who are whipped by the Sumerians constantly as they scrabble around in the dirt looking for the mushrooms that everyone eats for every meal EVERY DAY. I was also entertained by the interpretive dance set to an accompaniment of gongs and bongos and, perhaps most of all, I enjoyed Alan  Napier* as the High Priest, caked in white face powder and wearing rheumy contacts and a straggly moustache, beautifully declaiming his lines with the dignity and diction of a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

I am smiling rather than sneering and quite sincere when I say that this is one of the high watermarks of low quality films. I absolutely guarantee that you will enjoy it more than anything else on telly this evening, so why not give it a go? 

* Best known as Alfred the Butler from the Adam West Batman series.

Friday, 10 July 2015

HITLER'S CHILDREN













d. Edward Dmytryk (1943)


At first I wondered why, in 1943, US audiences were watching a film about the dangers of Nazism set in 1938, especially as America had already been at war with Germany for two years. Then I thought about the timing and realised that it was probably preparing them for D-Day: when there is sacrifice ahead, it's a good idea to remind people what it's all for.

In order to connect with audiences, the film uses a handsome boy and a pretty girl, a sort of Nazi Romeo and Juliet: he is a German born in America; she is an American born in Germany, and they love each other, despite their political differences. In the early days, it's picnics and sing-a-longs in the stereotypical hale and hearty way of the old Fatherland, all jolly rucksacks and strudel. When Hitler begins his conquests, however, things change. The boy joins the SS and the girl, because she has 'German blood' is sent to a re-education centre for lessons in National Socialism. 

Being a decent, freedom loving girl she doesn't take to the teachings of Herr Hitler one bit, of course, so is publicly whipped and scheduled for enforced sterilisation. The boy, belatedly realising that Nazism is as fucked up a philosophy as you can get, tries to save her, but is arrested. He has time to denounce Hitler at his trial before he and the girl are shot.

Heavy stuff, but then what else could it be? A light musical would have been completely inappropriate. Behind the fractured love story we occasionally get glimpses of other heinous policies: the rounding up of Jewish schoolchildren, no doubt destined for concentration camps; talk of the extermination of the physically and mentally impaired to further the bloodline of 'the master race'; the suggestion that it is the girl's duty to get pregnant by an approved Aryan at the soonest opportunity, no relationship required. The overall picture is of a sick, almost surreally inhuman society presided over by sadists who are either thugs or pseudo-intellectuals or an unsavoury combination of the two. 

Hitler's Children was an absolutely enormous box office success. Propaganda is always propaganda, of course, no matter which side it comes from, no matter how many facts (or lies) it contains. It's purpose is to create the collective frame of mind where it is okay to hate, to fight, to kill, to die - and this film, with its emphasis on the way the Nazis stamp down on personal expression and individual liberty, chimed absolutely with American audiences. They've always been very big on the old freedom thing in the US of A - for Americans, anyway.         

Friday, 3 July 2015

GIRLS IN PRISON












d. Edward L. Cahn (1956)

There’s not much to distinguish Girls In Prison as anything other than a very generic b-movie: a mass stabbing, perhaps, a slight allusion to lesbianism, an earthquake that facilitates an escape, a prison chaplain who is a bit too interested in one of the new inmates. Much of the film is just as you’d expect, and given the advanced ages of most of the cast, the definition of 'girls' is fairly loose, to say the least.

The best thing in it is Adele Jergens as Jenny, top dog and matriarch of the prison. Jenny is fairly genial most of the time, even likeable and kind, but is hard as nails when it comes down to tin tacks, a gun wielding, wavy peroxided, scarlet lipped force of nature. She’s absolutely gorgeous, even when chewing gum whilst simultaneously smoking a cigarette (actually, especially when chewing gum whilst simultaneously smoking a cigarette). The film would be almost insufferably dull without her.
After an hour and twenty minutes of molasses slow mayhem, the film climaxes in a bruising brawl and a gun fight. It’s a good way to end any drama, I find. After the dust has settled and the wonderful Jenny has gone the way of all pistol packing mama's, we end on a close up of a church steeple while some quasi-religious music plays, as if God has in some way been responsible for the restoring the balance of law and order. Rubbish. God was not responsible, although maybe he set off the earthquake to punish some other sinners in the general area. As for the rest, omniscient he may be, but micro management is not exactly his style. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

TEEN-AGE CRIME WAVE












d. Fred F. Sears (1955)


According to the prologue of this film, teenage delinquency is ‘a plague’. I don’t disagree with that but I always think of delinquency as being no worse than some petty crime and vandalism, maybe some minor violence, somewhere between high spirits and childish frustration at the adult world. I'm clearly very na├»ve as here the teens start off with armed robbery before very quickly moving on to several murders, including the shooting of a police man.

The protagonists are Mike Denton and Terry Marsh, a teenage Bonnie and Clyde with a penchant for guns and heavy petting in public. Mike is about five foot four, has a scar on his face and a chip on his shoulder. He’s the sort of person for whom it’s not enough to have a gun, he has to keep pushing it in people’s faces. You can’t want for the tough guy act to slip and for him to start snivelling and bawling.
His girlfriend Terry wears a satin blouse and talks out of the side of her mouth in a clipped hardboiled tone, like Mae West and Jimmy Cagney's lovechild. She has no intention of being taken alive, which is just as well, as she won't be. A victim of sorts, she’s had a tough upbringing (think Cinderella but without any of the magic stuff, especially not a handsome prince) and cries and moans in her sleep.
Most of the film is taken up with a siege at a mid-west farmhouse. It all gets pretty intense, so it’s a relief when the duo and their hostages break out and take to the road. The climax takes place at the Griffith Observatory, more famously used at the end of Rebel Without A Cause*. There’s a real humdinger of a fist fight in one of the rotating telescope domes, and Terry gets her wish, evading capture by being shot in the back and killed. The beaten and bloodied Mike, under arrest, breaks down and cries like a big old baby, or rather like the little kid he actually is - and well he might, as his next stop will be the gas chamber.
* The James Dean film came out barely a month before Teenage Crime Wave, so it may have even been a coincidence. But I doubt it.

Friday, 19 June 2015

THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED












d. Fred F. Sears


A dedicated scientist invents a machine that can forecast earthquakes just in time to predict that the world is about to be destroyed by a series of uncontrollable explosions. The cause is Element 112, a previously unknown type of rock that (rather like the stuff in Monolith Monsters, but in reverse) increases its mass when it dries out, then explodes with enormous force. Nobody is quite sure why this is happening, or where all the stock footage came from, although a pretty young scientific intern has a theory: ‘it’s like the Earth is paying us back for stealing its natural resources’*.
An early-ish example of an eco-disaster film, The Night The World Exploded is cheap but charming, if slightly confusing (the disasters take place during the day for a start). Despite being just over an hour long, however, and being about exploding rocks and volcanoes and the end of the world, it does drag a little bit, not least in the scenes where we watch people descending rope ladders into the Carlsbad Caverns for about ten minutes.

Later on, the chief scientist comes up with a theory: 'it's like the Earth is paying us back for stealing its natural resources'.

Friday, 12 June 2015

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!











d. Ray Milland (1962)


A sombre, tense film about life in America in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike, Panic in Year Zero! starts happily enough, with Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family setting out on a fishing expedition. A couple of hours into the journey, Harry sees a series of flashes in his rear view mirror, and stops the car just in time to see a mushroom cloud billowing over what used to be Los Angeles.

What happens next unfolds slowly and meticulously, as Harry tries to get his family to a safe place in the hills before the world goes crazy. In order to do so, he must become a more ruthless and resourceful man than his wife ever expected him to be, a man of decisive action and no little force: within an hour, for instance, he is holding a shop keeper at gun point for refusing to take a cheque then, a little later, he knocks out a filling station attendant who is trying to charge him $300 for $10 of petrol.

Harry has immediately grasped that the war will not just be between America and its enemies but between ordinary people fighting to live, not to mention an element that will use the bomb as an excuse to let their more anarchic tendencies loose. Harry’s wife very much disapproves of her husband’s methods, even after their teenage daughter is raped by two hoodlums. While she cries and wrings her hands Harry tracks down the rapists and kills them, ably assisted by his son (Frankie Avalon), who is not only seeing his stuffy old man in a totally different light, but also getting quite an apprenticeship in the ancient art of survival.

The army picks up the reins after a few days and things start to return to - well, not normal as most of the cities of the world have been wiped out. It’s been a nightmare, of course, but, secretly, you know that Harry and his son are just a little disappointed that it’s all over. A final caption states 'There must be no end - only a new beginning'. Good luck with that. 

It would be interesting to know what the US government thought of the film, as it’s not a particularly edifying or comforting message. But it is realistic, thought provoking and rather good. 

As a final note, there are a lot of automobiles in this film, and most of them have wood stuck on the side of them. It’s rather a sweet, forgotten detail: human beings used to make their motor vehicles partially out of wood, as if we weren’t quite ready to make the leap from cart to car.

Friday, 5 June 2015

HANDS OF A STRANGER













d. Newt Arnold (1962)


A noir-ish take on the much filmed Hands Of Orlac, this is a torrid tale of a self-obsessed concert pianist called Vernon Paris who has his hands mangled to buggery in a car crash. He is treated by an equally egocentric surgeon, who takes the decision to illegally graft the hands of a victim of a gangland slaying onto Paris’ bloodied stumps. The operation is a complete success, if you don’t count the bit where Rose goes insane and starts killing people, first by mistake, later by design. Oh, and afterwards he plays the piano like a chimp at a tea party, so that didn’t work either.

This is a terrifically entertaining film, filled with intense performances and clever but florid dialogue which goes a mile a minute and would probably call a spade a hand operated metal and wood earth penetrating excavation device. It’s also choc-a-bloc with clever camera work and punchy visual motifs, mostly hands and pianos and hands playing pianos. Everything is played in deadly earnest and without a scintilla of camp, which, of course, makes it all ten times better (and ten times camper).
Unlike the Orlac story, we never find out who the transplant hands belong to, so there is little emphasis on the hands as being evil or imbued with evil, although it does make you wonder why they spent the time establishing that the donor was a gangster if they weren’t going to use that as part of the story. Here, the supernatural is replaced by the practical, the psychological: put simply, the accident and transplant snap Paris’ already brittle mind, and drive him to kill over and over again (he breaks his victims fingers, then strangles them). This ripe exchange sort of marks the boundaries:

'If you're concerned with the possibility that the donor might have been some kind of madman, let me assure you that psychotic tendencies don't transfer themselves to the physical extremities after death!'

'You know that for a fact?'


'No, no, I don't!'


Need I say any more? Recommended.

Friday, 29 May 2015

TARZAN'S MAGIC FOUNTAIN












d. Lee Sholem (1949) 


One of my great heroes is Johnny Weissmuller, so I'm not predisposed to like Lex Barker, the man who replaced him as Tarzan after 16 glorious years. I'm not an unreasonable person, however, so I thought I'd give Barker the benefit of the doubt and see how the interloping twat does at filling Johnny's loin cloth (although I'm assuming Barker got a new loin cloth when he started. I certainly hope so).

These days, Tarzan's Magic Fountain would be described as a franchise reboot: new lead actor, some new sets, some new matte paintings - and a return to some of the gruesome violence that the series was originally notable for but became less prevalent as the films became popular with children. This is counter balanced by an awful lot of comic relief, mostly Cheeta related. There is still a reliance on (often badly matched) stock footage, much of which has already appeared in Tarzan films many, many times over.

The story meanders around a long lost aviatrix (40s horror favourite, Evelyn Ankers) and the idea of a hidden jungle city that has the secret of eternal youth. It's not particularly interesting, and there is an 'of its time' sub-plot where Jane takes charge of an expedition in order to demonstrate all that she has learned from many years of living in the jungle. It's a total disaster, and it's not long before she's lost, covered in killer ants and caught in a flash flood, flapping her arms around and shouting for Tarzan. That will teach the woman to try and do stuff.

So, what does Barker bring to the role? Well, he's fifteen years younger than Johnny Weissmuller, and, understandably, in better shape (Johnny filled out a bit when he hit 40). His biggest contribution, however, is smugness: his Tarzan is extremely pleased with himself, and forever smirking at some private joke or other. It's not an admirable quality, nor is the fact that he wears espadrilles all the time

As ever, the film ends on some Cheeta related tomfoolery. This time, Cheeta drinks from the magic fountain of youth and turns into a baby Howler Monkey. A baby Howler Monkey. They must think we are fucking idiots. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN













d. Edward Dmytryk (1943)


Noted endocrinologist John Carradine has made the familiar transition from dedicated scientist to unhinged maniac. He steals a friendly gorilla from a circus and implants it with the glands of his nurse, who made the mistake of suggesting that he was probably working too hard. The result, somewhat improbably, is a beautiful, exotic looking woman who he names Paula Dupree (she's played by Acquanetta, 'the Venezualan Volcano', actually born in Wyoming).

Because he's mad and drunk on his own cleverness, the doctor takes his creation back to the circus, where it becomes clear that Paula has a miraculous power over animals: they are shit scared of her. She is immediately enlisted as an assistant to the big cat tamer, her main role being to stand outside the cage in a spangly outfit just looking intently at the lions and tigers*. Occasionally, if they become unruly, she will look harder, perhaps arching an eyebrow. It's nice work if you can get it, though, presumably, there isn't a massive amount of demand for that sort of talent.

Falling in love with the big cat tamer sends powerful emotions coursing through her reconfigured body, however, breaking her new glands and unleashing her inner gorilla. By the time she is shot by an over zealous cop (nothing much changes in America) she has fully reverted to her old, hairy animal self, but there is a moment roughly halfway between her initial retro-transformation from human lady to ape woman to gorilla in which she is probably the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

* These scenes feature Clyde Beatty, the world famous animal trainer. It is amazing to watch him face down a dozen snarling big cats, but his methods leave a lot to be desired. There is also a lot of footage of lions and tigers fighting each other, an incredible but unedifying spectacle. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

THE FLIGHT THAT DISAPPEARED













d. Reginald Le Borg (1961)


Resembling an over extended episode of The Twilight Zone (there's half a compliment there, anyway) this film tells the story of three people who meet on a flight to Washington and realise that they are all on the way to the same meeting, a meeting that might actually lead to the extinction of mankind. For the record, they are a nuclear physicist, a rocket expert and a theoretical mathematician and between them their heads hold the ingredients of a super weapon which would make the H Bomb look like the cordite strip from a Christmas cracker.  

As they fly towards the American capitol, however, something strange happens. Despite the pilot's best efforts, the plane keeps rising and rising, even after all four engines cut out. At a height of ten miles, the plane becomes frozen amongst the clouds, and only our three boffins are left conscious. They make their way onto a mist shrouded patch of land (in the sky!) and are met by a group of ticked off looking people representing the as yet unborn generations of Earth. Yes, it's a trial, an unusual court where people who may never exist are passing judgement on people for something they haven't actually done yet. 

Just as the trio of scientists are being sentenced to an eternity in stasis, an older white haired man emerges through the fog and challenges the verdict. I think he might have been God, he certainly didn't look like a human rights lawyer. In any event, the three are returned to the plane which is allowed to continue its journey.

At first, the three assume it was all a bizarre dream (perhaps not surprising given how many cigarettes, cups of coffee and glasses of scotch they had imbibed on the flight) but, when they get to Washington and informed that they are over 24 hours late, they admit that something truly cosmic has happened and throw all their notes into the nearest waste paper basket, presumably to be immediately picked up by the nearest commie spy masquerading as an airport cleaner.  

Friday, 8 May 2015

THE 27th DAY













d. William Asher (1957) 

'People hate because they fear, and they fear everything they don't understand, which is almost everything'.


Aliens abduct five people from as many different countries: an English woman, an American journalist, a German scientist, a Chinese refugee and a Russian Soldier. Aboard the mother ship, a rather suave alien spokesman tells his guests that his planet is dying and his people would quite like to move to Earth but, as they are a fair and peaceful people, an invasion is out of the question. He goes on to say that as humans seem pretty intent on destroying themselves, anyway, the aliens have come up with a plan. Each of the abductees is given a box that contains three capsules holding enough combined power to kill every human being on Earth quickly, quietly and cleanly without the destructive power of a nuclear war. The alien simply requests that if the people of Earth do decide to blow themselves to bits in the next 27 days, then could they please use the capsules rather than bombs to facilitate human extinction, as this will leave the planet intact so the aliens can move right in. After 27 days, the aliens will have to make other arrangements, perhaps look to rent some temporary accommodation.

Not blowing up the Earth for 27 days seems fairly straightforward, of course, even at the height of the Cold War, but the Aliens immediately up the ante by appearing on every TV in the world and giving out the names of the abductees and some tentative details of the incredible power that they now possess. There's nothing like a bit of extraterrestrial intervention to put mankind into a tail spin, of course, so everything goes mental: there are riots in Cornwall, panic in Los Angeles; the Chinese lady stabs herself, the German professor searches for a solution, the Brit and the Yank fall in love. The Russian soldier, poor devil, is almost tortured to death by his own evil communist overlords, so eager are they to find out the secret to killing every American. Damn Russians*. 

The ending has not one but two very gratifying twists, a more than satisfactory ending to an unusual and intriguing film about how fundamentally rubbish humans are - and how ultimately marvellous they can be once the get past all the bullshit.    

* In contrast, the US government are shown as a benign, supportive group of people who have only humanity's best interests at heart. Yeah, right.