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Invisible Ghost (1941)
More than a ghost of a chance
Considering it's quick, cheap Monogram Pictures pedigree, this film is has a surprising amount to recommend it. Though the lucks of funds allotted to it shows, it uses the limitation to it's advantage, producing a tense, claustrophobic film set almost entirely in one house seemingly cursed by repeated murders.
Bela Lugosi is more genre-cast than type-cast in this film. While it's still a suspense thriller, he is for once given a sympathetic role, he he plays it to the hilt, giving a very sympathetic performance as a man devastated completely after being left by his wife. It's both a strength and a flaw in entertainment terms, though, that the script of this film is utterly strange and bonkers. Lugosi's wife has lost her memory and sanity, and is being fed and hidden away by Kessler's (Lugosi's gardener). She likes to wander around at night in a spectral fashion, whereupon Kessler has a tendency to see her, then go temporarily insane and kill somebody. On this occasion, he kills the crazy ex of his daughter's fiancé Ralph, causing Ralph to take the blame for the murder and be executed. Then Ralph's twin brother shows up from abroad and help investigate the murders.
Yes, it's that odd a plot. Which makes it totally unbelievable, but also loads of fun to watch. I liked that it depended on psychological horror, and that the "Invisible Ghost" of the title was invisible because there wasn't one.
While I'm sure the direction was done under time constraints, there are a number of nice shots, and Joseph H. Lewis conveys a lot of information evocatively and visually in a scenario that requires a lot of information to be transmitted quickly.
All in a all, a good showcase for Lugosi in what's actually rather a tragic and sympathetic role, and some nice creepy film-making around a scenario that's completely ludicrous -- but entertainingly ludicrous!
The Devil Bat (1940)
I just watched The Devil Bat for the first time since I was a child. I remembered Bela Lugosi, the central plot device of murder by means of an aftershave that attracts killer bats, and the fact that everyone in the movie seems to listen to exactly the same radio station at exactly the same time. All those elements are still there, and though the last one only occurs once, it still seems like an amusingly silly way of conveying exposition. But much less prevalent than the cinema cliché of panning, zooming, and spinning newspapers, which appear here constantly. Perhaps that's more appropriate than normal, though, since two of our main characters are reporters.
The Devil Bat has been one of the more enduring of Lugosi's cheap "poverty row" horror/mystery roles, no doubt because it remains highly entertaining and watchable despite, or perhaps because of the fact that everything that happens in in the realm of high silliness with horror trappings. Lugosi is a scientist (which here apparently means both a physician and a perfume chemist) who cashed out early after making a perfume formula for a successful company, and now thinks the company's fortune should be his. So his solution is to murder the family who runs the company in a very convoluted fashion. The concept is, well, batty. And from an acting standpoint, you can't say Lugosi makes this character "believable." Nobody could make someone doing this believable. But is is very entertainingly creepy, which is exactly his job.
Because we know from the start what he is doing, this can't be a traditional mystery. But it's well-paced enough that we still follow the other characters as they inevitably move towards finding the solution we already know. And we don't blame them for not guessing such an unlikely scenario. Reporter Johnny is our hero. He's a little hard to take seriously as he spends most of the film wearing a tie with a huge question-mark pattern on it. Perhaps he is secretly The Doctor.
He gets fired after his photographer "One-Shot" fakes a news photo of the devil bat. But he rather unbelievably wants to keep working on the story despite no longer technically being a reporter since he as no one to report to. When they find out more about the case their boss rather shockingly wants to hire them back, despite the fact that at least one of them provably fabricated his earlier journalism.
But it's all part of the comic relief, which is still fun working alongside the unintentional comic non-relief. And though the film is clearly quite low-budgeted, its hows that more in its flimsy castle set (of course, all doctor-scientist-perfumers live in castles) than in its devil bats.
There's very little objectively "good" about this movie, but it's everything a fun B movie should be.
The Ape (1940)
Accept no apers
This short feature is probably best known as Boris Karloff's only foray into the realm of chap Monogram horror films so often inhabited by Bela Lugosi and George Zucco. That may be technically correct, but it was filmed after he had made a series of Mr Wong films for the same studio, which technically fell into the category of mystery.
Here, disguised by round eyeglasses and a large mustache rather than yellow-face, he gives a very different performance. And though the film was made quickly (I read that it was shot in a week) and cheaply, he puts a lot into the performance. He's a murder who is nonetheless quite a sympathetic figure, trying to film a cure that will allow his handicapped daughter-figure to walk.
The short running time doesn't help in that I wish there had been more time to build character. What exactly is that nature of Dr Adrian's relationship with Frances that he is so dedicated to her case? The film makes the point quite strongly that the townspeople hate him, but doesn't really explain why.
The central premise of extracting (possibly an ape's) spinal fluid to cure human paralysis is delightfully daft. Though I suspect it would have seemed less so in 1940, only fifteen or twenty years after the fad of men using "monkey glands" to cure a loss of virility.
The dialogue is actually quite good at some points, and the writing has a good pedigree. It's an adapted version of a successful play (which I can't evaluate, having never seen a copy) by Kurt Siodmak, a respectable novelist. The end may seem hackneyed to some, but I actually didn't quite guess that it was Adrian in a monkey suit. To me it was just the right level of telegraphed that I felt as though I should have guessed it even though I didn't. And it made much more forgivable the fact that the ape looked like a person in an ape costume.
I like that Frances was finally able to walk and give Adrian a happy death despite the murderous means he used to find the cure. Melodramatic but fitting. The theme overall touches on the fear of science (in the "some things man was not meant to know" vein) that many of these films had, but repudiates by curing polio despite the murders of the scientist.
All in all, a nice little science fiction mystery of the era that manages to be a entertaining and even a bit thoughtful despite its flaws, low budget, and rushed, brief nature.
Boys of the City (1940)
I wasn't too familiar with the East Side Kids or Bowery Boys going into this cheap, short 1940 feature, and without the context that many other reviews have, it leaves a lot to be desired. The first thing that's wrong is the title, as the "Boys of the City" spend almost the entire film in the country.
The band of broadly-portrayed juvenile delinquents are going to be sent to jail for not very much, but instead accept a deal to spend time at a house in the mountains of upstate New York. Maybe this is a thing that really happened, but it doesn't seem very plausible.
From there it turns into a listless attempt at a spook comedy, the trouble being that there aren't many attempts at comedy. Most of the apparent jokes are broad racial stereotypes of the one black character played for humor. The "joke" being that he is extremely cowardly, and on one occasional that he is delighted to get a slice of watermelon instead of actual dinner. The final "gag" consists of a couple of his friends confusing his hand with a piece of chocolate cake, then shoving the actual cake in his face. Even allowing for different social mores in 1940, this is just mean-spiritedly racist. And even if it weren't be very funny.
There's a large section of the short running time devoted to the "straight" plot, involving a judge who is on the run, afraid he'll be murdered. None of this is very compelling or sensible. The "spooky house" is clearly supposed to be an old mansion, but looks like an undisguised studio set house.
So in all, not much to recommend this modest comedy. There are few gags, and most of the ones that are there are undisguised racism. The mystery plot is dull. The chills aren't very chilling. If it weren't for the vigorous stereotyping, it would be almost pleasant viewing, but without inspiring any real laughs, scares, or attention.
I watched this episode in Binghamton, New York, sure that the name of the main character, Helen Foley, was familiar. Turns out it's from the Helen Foley Theater at Binghamton High School, where I performed (not as a student) in a staged reading of Rod Serling's play "Patterns," and which was named after a teacher that Serling had at the school. No significance to any of this, other than it gave me a creepy experience while watching that was somewhat similar to the one Helen Foley has in the episode.
This is a very effective and chilling piece of psychological drama, which starts off as very creepy then moves into being very heavy viewing. Great use is made of the few characters in a claustrophobic atmosphere, and a great deal of the eeriness has to be attributed to Terry Burnham, who is unexpectedly and intangibly good as the precocious, serious, superior, spooky Markie.
I guessed ahead of time that Markie was a younger Helen, and that she was all in her head (explained somewhat sententiously by a doctor who appears only to deliver that exposition), but not that Selden was the murderer of her mother. That's an effective twist that adds a lot of drama quickly. And the resolution is effective and satisfying, even if it does leave one wondering a bit why there is no suggestion of charging Hlen with throwing Selden down the stairs.
All in all, a very creepy, memorable psycho-drama that manages to feel supernaturally spooky while keeping all such elements in the main character's head -- and being the more effective for it.
Hell is other people
Certainly this is a very well-made episode, with Larry Blyden and Sebastian Cabot both putting in excellent performances, given some clever dialogue, and briefly placed a very impressive-looking "Hall of Records" set.
What lets it down in that it's very heavy-handed with it's message and telegraphs it's twist a mile off. Through the first half it seems to try to make a surprise of the fact that after Valentine has been shot and approached by a mystical man all in white, he is in fact dead. The message, essentially that "heaven isn't getting everything you want," is true, but also such a truism that it was already an old chestnut by the time this episode was filmed. Guessing the final revelation than Valentine is not in Heaven but in "the other place" is not difficult, so when the program gets to confirming it, there's little punch.
There are a couple of sexually suggestive moments, but their impact feels muted in the context of such a moralistic play. On the plus side, there are some somewhat funny lines and concepts illustrating the invulnerability of getting everything you desire, and the pacing, while it doesn't help alleviate the predictability of the proceedings, does keep them moving entertainingly enough.
Suspense: The Yellow Scarf (1949)
By 1949, Boris Karloff had had a lot of practice at projecting vague, creepy, menace -- and that's essentially what he's called on to do here. In fact, the whole episode is basically an excuse for him to do that without much reason given.
The half-hour running time of the radio series of "Suspense" worked well, but when the logistics of very early television have to be worked in as well, "The Yellow Scarf" suffers for time to explain why characters are doing what they're doing (though the only noticeable technical problem is one big camera jostle).
There's some suggestion Karloff's character is a science-fictional mad scientist type, but in the end it seems he's just an unpleasant, controlling fellow who happens to live with a hunchback servant and have a laboratory for "clients" right off a poor London street.
There's clumsy suggestion of sexual abuse -- I think -- as he offers Hettie a money and a room as long as she doesn't go out alone, planning to marry her if that plot doesn't work. After a fade-out they are unhappily married with no suggestion of how he got her to agree.
One thinks the suspense will be around explaining this situation and the mystery of the laboratory, but that's left unexplained. So when Hettie takes revenge by poisoning Bronson using the same chemical-infused scarf that he over-elaborately used to kill Tom, one wonders why she hadn't escaped the situation long before. Felicia Montealegre and Douglass Watson, unfortunately, are only alright and give performances that veer into overwrought too often.
Moy nezhno lyubimyy detektiv (1986)
Not dearly beloved but moderately liked
As a fan of Sherlock Holmes and his widely varied screen versions, and as a learner of Russian who greatly enjoyed the straight Soviet adaptations of the Holmes stories that starred Vasily Livanov in the 1970s and 1980s, I was quite looking forward to watching this comedy once I found it. The conceit is that Sherlock Holmes is, as in reality, a fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, but that the place where his office would be is maintained by the brilliant detective Shirley Holmes, who both solves crimes and maintains a museum for people who think Sherlock Holmes is real -- accompanied by a phonograph playing music from the Livanov series which had not long ended. She is accompanied, as might be expected, by a woman Watson, and must fight off the affections of both a Scotland Yard inspector an a parody Latin lover from Spain.
It's a fun joke. And the whole film, in fact, is full of fun jokes. We get dancing Scotland Yard policemen singing songs that essentially mock their own incongruity, and chief inspectors setting up offices in dank basements to hide out. The humor is often absurdist, but delivered with a straight face; it's almost reminiscent of Monty Python-style comedy, delivered with a deadpan quality that seems to suit its Victorian English setting. My favorite sequence came when the members of a gentlemen's club were told they would have to go through a "humiliating verification" to see which of them were really will -- which turned out to be a man asking each of them very seriously if they were gentlemen. There's some sexist humor present too, but that almost goes without saying, given the premise.
There's also an attempt to fit in a murder mystery, thought, and to make the love triangle between Holmes, the Latin lover, and the police inspector carry weight. And given the overt silliness of the humor these elements take up screen time without commanding attention. It makes the film seem to drag even when entertaining moments come fairly frequently. I wish the filmmakers, if they were going to commit to all-out silliness, had not felt as obligated to provide a standard-issue plot.
Andrey Rublev (1966)
Art for art's sake
This is the second of Tarkovsky's films that I've seen, and on first viewing I can detect deep and very individual stylistic similarities with "Stalker." But "Andrey Rublev" is a still broader and deeper film, and I can also tell on first viewing that I will want to watch it again, and that the opportunity to do so will uncover worlds more.
In fact, this is a difficult comment to write because it seems like any attempt to encapsulate the experience of this film in less that it's slow, still, and sometimes turbulent full length would be in vain. This is ostensibly a film about the medieval Russian painter Andrey Rublev, but Tarkovsky has taken the opportunity to make it a film that is really simultaneously a stunningly full portrait of the both loft and low Russia of his day, and a meditation on the nature of power, art, and religious faith.
It moves at a deliberately very slow pace, but in every long, still shot where life is allowed to play out without the boundaries imposed by quick cuts, something subtly and revealingly fascinating goes on. We follow a half-nonsense peasant dance, for example, for longer than we would ever expect in a film, and that length is at once uncomfortable an very revealing.
It's beautifully photographed, and must have had lavish resources behind its simple-looking recreation of a rural Russia of centuries ago. It's easy to see why the Soviet government was divided and eventually changed its mind on the release of such a beautiful film, honoring a national hero, but showing Christianity favorably in contrast to the invaders and questioning art's subservience to authority.
I know I'll be rewarded again by letting the scope of this film wash over me, and letting the various elements making up the conversations on its thematic elements work against each other in my mind in new ways each time. In that way, it is, though much more laconic, reminiscent as some have observed of Dostoevsky.
Gives according to its ability, but that's not much
One has to expect going into a Soviet film from 1958 called "The Communist" that one has a pretty good chance of getting a propaganda film. If one does, this movie is no surprise. Unfortunately, it leans more towards demonstrating the artistic dullness often inspired by devotion to the ideal of the socialist-realist "art movement" than its sometimes-amusing excesses. It does, however, contain some interesting historical insights into how tropes were manipulated in service of the political message.
Our hero is a superhumanly devoted Communist and hard-worker, declaring his loyalty without hesitation in rooms full of people full of people clearly hostile to Communism. Laboring more than anyone imagines possible for the party, he chops down a absurdly prodigious number of trees overnight when others will not help him. Lenin (played by a man who does actually look eerily like Lenin) is portrayed as a man dedicated to fixing the smallest details of work projects in every part of the country, while at the same time extremely busy with being the guiding hand of the revolution.
Our hero, near the end, becomes the only person in town killed when it is struck by malicious fire, allowing him to rather artificially become a martyr.
On the other hand it is interesting that that film contains some thematic material around how moral it may be (within the socialist framework) to pursue a woman who is technically still married -- and many fascinated glimpses at recreated 1920s Russian life.
There were a lot of non-propaganda films on non-political subjects produced in the Soviet Union. This isn't one of them, and it doesn't challenge the prevailing norms about how political material should be presented, or do anything out of its way to do anything interesting cinematically. This makes it the cinema equivalent of the much- derided "tractor novel," and it doesn't have much artistic merit outside of its political context.