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The Witches (1966)
''What Do ''The Devil's Own'' Do After Dark?''
One of legendary production company Hammer Films lesser known titles, ''The Witches'' was Golden Age Star Joan Fontaine's last theatrical film. She herself bought the rights to Norah Loft's ''The Devil's Own'' and brought it to Hammer, casting herself in the leading role of schoolteacher Gwen Mayfield. Ms. Mayfield is still recovering from a traumatic experience in Africa, where, while teaching , she became the target of the local Witch Doctor. Shortly after her subsequent breakdown, she accepts another teaching position in a small English village. At first, the placid atmosphere and friendly local folk seemingly aid her attempts to overcome the past. However, it's not long before she begins to sense that all is not what it appears. Fontaine, still lovely at 49, gives an incisive performance as the victimized teacher, who isn't sure at first whether or not she is imagining the disturbing events which surround her. The hand picked supporting cast, which includes such familiar faces as Leonard Rossiter (''Reginald Perrin'') Michele Dotrice, Shelagh Fraser ('Star Wars'') and, making her debut, as the target of ''The Witches'', Ingrid Boulting, here billed as Ingrid Brett. Despite excellent performances by all, the film is stolen by film veteran Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist) former wife of director David Lean, who plays free lance writer Stephanie Bax to perfection. Distinguished stage actor Alec McCowen appears as her rather ineffectual brother. Director Cyril Frankel moves things along at a leisurely pace, abetted by some splendid photography and a suitably eerie score by Richard Rodney Bennett. Alas, though the suspense is carefully cultivated from the beginning, things begin to get shaky at mid-point, when Mayfield lands in a nursing home, with her memory of the recent past gone. After a fairly lengthy stay, it's eventually restored. From here, she escapes just in time to join a frenzied climax in which the activities of the local Coven resemble an Aerobics workout at a Rescue Mission, rather than a Black Mass. Nevertheless, the wrap up is a satisfying one, and audiences who go for this sort of thing will not feel cheated. When ''The Witches'' was released in England in late 1966, it garnered some fine reviews, but little box office. For it's American debut (in early 1967) the title was changed to ''The Devil's Own'' in order to avoid confusion with an Italian film, ''The Witches'' (starring Clint Eastwood) which appeared around the same time. Unfortunately, ''The Devil's own'' ended up on the bottom half of a double bill with Hammer's abysmal ''Slave Girls'' (here dubbed ''Prehistoric Women''). and, again, it came and went quickly, much to the chagrin of Co-Produce Fontaine. Today, however, the film retains it's ability to intrigue the viewer, and thanks to it's fine cast, it remains one of Hammer's most underrated efforts.
Fine Adaptation Of Grimm's ''Cinderella''.
''Cinderella'' has been adapted for the screen countless times, but films based on''Aschenputtel''the Grimm version of the tale, are rare. This one was made for German Television in 1989, and it's a faithful translation.The Grimm Brothers were known for their ''darker'' versions of familiar tales.''Aschenputtel'' is no exception. And, because of this it may not be suitable for all audiences. Though the Grimm ending, in which the Stepsister's eyes are plucked out by Cinderella's Doves, has not been included, the Stepsister's mutilation of their feet, (in a vain attempt to fit the shoe) is. The Grimm's also added a Spiritual quality to this retelling. There is no Fairy Godmother. It's the Guiding Spirit of her dead mother (through a magical tree) who watches over her and helps her attain her ''Happy Ending''. Not surprisingly, the focus here is on the abuse the Heroine suffers at the hands of her Stepmother and Stepsisters, making her eventual deliverance that much more satisfying. The German cast will be unfamiliar to most US viewers, but they are all excellent.Young Petra Vigna makes a sensitive, appealing Cinderella who will inspire viewer sympathy. The standout performance,however, comes from Krista Stadler, a veteran of European film and Television, who plays the wicked stepmother. She is deliciously nasty(and very beautiful) in the part-though she adds a touch of humor as well. Sets and costumes, while strangely recalling the 19th century rather than a mystical ''Once Upon A Time'' era, are still very attractive. .As for the photography, it's so good that it's really a shame the film was not made for movie theaters. The English-dubbed version which was newly titled ''Cinderella''for Stateside release,is a bit out of sync,(par for the course for Americanized foreign product), but the voices are first-rate. Sadly, the musical score is not. Often, when foreign films were dubbed for the US market, new background scores were composed for them. And,surprisingly,it wasn't unusual when the new music actually improved the film itself.It's a shame that didn't happen this time. Other than this drawback,the movie is very well done, and will especially appeal to lovers of the story. They won't be disappointed.
Golden Needles (1974)
''The One Who Owns Them Can Rule The World''!
''Golden Needles'' was one of American International Pictures 20 year anniversary releases. A mixture of the then-popular Martial Arts genre with a ''Maltese Falcon'' like plot, it's a fast-moving, popcorn movie, the kind they used to make in the 40's. Starring Joe Don Baker (''Walking Tall'') and Elizabeth Ashley(''Rancho Deluxe''), the film spins an actionful tale, set in the seamy section of Hong Kong.Baker is a soldier of fortune-turned Antique Dealer, (or, maybe the other way around) who is hired by a mystery woman (Ashley) to steal a priceless ancient statue with the power to bestow long life (and sexual vigor) or instant death to he(or she) who owns it. Ashley herself has been cheated out of the statue by a powerful Chinese gang leader Roy Chiao) and she's after it for HER employer (a wizened Burgess Meredith, having a ball with his eccentric character). Karate star Jim Kelly (''Enter The Dragon'') appears briefly as Baker's partner in the Antique business. The legendary Ann Sothern is also aboard,and she's fine as another of Baker's pals, the tough but good-hearted proprietor of a seedy bar. Beautiful Frances Fong is around as well, as an agent for the Hong Kong government and also in pursuit of the statue.Double-crosses, fights, chases and mayhem ensue, but though the plot has more than it's share of threads, it is never confusing, thanks to ''Dragon's'' director, Robert Clouse, who treats it like the old-fashioned ''B'' movie it really is. Though produced on a low budget, as was the case with most American International movies,it looks like every penny spent is on the screen. The location photography is excellent, as is the classy art direction, and both lend plenty of atmosphere to the story.
The sets are also impressive,one in particular at the start of the film, is very reminiscent of the witch's lair in ''Suspiria'',but it pre-dates that film by 2 years. High praise goes to Lalo Schifrin's pulsating score as well. Though Meredith and Sothern were obviously added for their name value and have little to do,they, along with the rest of the cast seem to be enjoying themselves immensely,and if the viewer can suspend disbelief a bit and just go along with the story, they will, too. Previously available only in Canada, on a pan-and scan videotape, ''Golden Needles'' was released on DVD as part of the ''MGM DVD ON DEMAND'' series. It's presented in it's original Panavision format, with rich color and strong (if a bit grainy) picture quality. The sound is always intelligible,though slightly distorted here and there. But, all in all, it's a welcome release of a film that's been sadly neglected over the years. And one that may now get the attention it deserves.
The Young Animals (1968)
Misleading Advertising-Decent Movie.
Although American International Pictures (the drive-in specialists who put the ''ex'' in ''Exploitation) promoted this film in their usual, lurid way, (''They Run In Packs, And What They Do Makes Headlines!'') , it's actually a good, if simplistic look at White vs. Mexicans in a California High School. Tom Nardini (''Cat Ballou'') is the new Latino kid on the block who tries, peacefully, to combat the prejudice faced by the Mexican students, from both the white kids as well as some of the faculty. When he becomes involved with a sympathetic ''Gringo'' girl, (Patty McCormack), her bigoted ex-boyfriend (David Macklin) and his gang vow revenge. And revenge he gets, in some pretty tense scenes which are uncomfortable to watch, even today. As a hot-headed student at odds with Nardini's approach to their problems, Zooey Hall is impressive. His girlfriend is played by the lovely Joanna Frank (''The Savage Seven'') and though her part is relatively small, she is just as effective. In fact, all of the acting is convincing here,( including an early appearance by a young A Martinez) and if the resolution seems a bit far-fetched, the film's heart is in the right place. At the last minute, the title was switched to ''Born Wild'', which really doesn't do it justice either, but, under any name, it's a good example of a ''Teen Flick'' with an actual message, something most were lacking. The photography, by Ken Peach is excellent, belying the film's low budget. The editing is jumpy in places, but nothing seems to have been removed which would spoil the continuity. (It's noticeable mostly in the abbreviated performances of the two rock bands ''The American Revolution'' and ''Orphan Egg'', both of whom were under contract to AIP at the time). Good Les Baxter score, too. It's worth seeing at least once.
The Wild Angels (1966)
''The Most Terrifying Film Of Our Time!''.
That's what it seemed like ''way back in 1966. Producer Roger Corman set out to make a film based on the notorious California-Based ''Hell's Angels'' motorcycle gang, having seen a cover story about them in Life Magazine.Legendary ''B'' movie studio, American International Pictures was just as anxious to jump on the ''Biker Bandwagon'' (they eventually produced or distributed eleven more films on this subject) and gave the OK to Corman. Though George Chakiris (''West Side Story'' Oscar Winner) was originally cast in the lead role, it was Peter Fonda who ended up playing the part. Playing his ''Old Lady'' was Nancy Sinatra, who was then riding high with her hit single ''These Boots Are Made For Walkin'.Bruce Dern played ''The Loser'' the part originally intended for Fonda, and Dern's then wife Diane Ladd portrayed his on-screen spouse. There were a few familiar faces among the supporting actors as well, including Gayle Hunnicutt, in an early appearance, and Assistant Director Peter Bogdonavich, who is glimpsed in the climactic brawl,as is Corman himself. The story itself is really just a loosely connected series of incidents which allow the viewer to follow the ''Angel's'' exploits as if they were viewing a Documentary about the gang. Since ''The Wild One''aside, this was the film that started the whole ''Cycle'' cycle, it's not surprising that it has a very experimental feel to it.The location photography is excellent, and belies the brief three week shooting schedule, while the musical score written by future AIP Biker music stalwart (and future Lieutenant Governor) Mike Curb, is dynamic and fits the visuals like a glove. The same goes for the group (''Davie Allan And The Arrows'') who perform it. In fact ''Blues Theme'' was a hit single for the group, and the Soundtrack Album proved so popular that a second volume was released. Both records, in fact, started the ''Motorcycle Soundtrack'' craze, most of which were released on Curb's ''Tower/Sidewalk'' labels, a Capitol Records affiliate during the 60's. The actors themselves are not given much opportunity to spread their wings and fly, so to speak, but, under the circumstances, they do all right. Dern is especially convincing as ''The Loser'' and Ladd evokes the sympathy her character calls for. Fonda is a bit weak as ''Heavenly Blues'' the leader, but Sinatra makes a pretty tough ''Momma'' and though her natural beauty is downplayed, she is still very easy on the eyes.Upon it's release, the low-budget film proved enormously popular (AIP'S biggest hit so far) and convinced them to launch a whole series of ''Protest'' films. (A wise decision on their part, because they kept the studio in the profit margin for years to come). The Biker genre would have it's share of hits and misses, and, thanks to a few Poverty-Row, independent productions like ''The Hellcats'' ''The Rebel Rousers'' and ''The Cycle Savages'' (starring Dern) all of which made this one seem fairly lavish by comparison, it had petered out by the early seventies. Nevertheless, ''The Wild Angels'' and a few successors like ''Devil's Angels'' and ''Born Losers'' (both released in 1967) remain among the most popular''B'' films of their era.
Mask of the Dragon (1951)
''Crime Wore The Mask Of The Dragon!''
This second feature from ''Quickie King'' Robert Lippert is fairly amusing, in it's (very)unambitious way. When ''Hero''Richard Travis' Army Sergeant pal is murdered shortly after he returns from the Orient, He and his lab technician girlfriend (Sheila Ryan) find themselves in the middle of the investigation. This leads them to a group of smugglers, working out of a Chinatown curio shop in downtown Los Angeles. Not to mention an almost completely beside the point interlude at a local TV station. Here, what there is of the story grinds to a halt while a Singing Cowboy act is shoehorned in to perform two unnecessary (and unwelcome) musical numbers, and character actor Sid Melton tries out what looks like a weak comedy act on an adjoining stage. He's accompanied by one of the worst no-name ''Actresses'' ever seen on film. (And, naturally, this one was never seen again.)
Luckily, the story (eventually) resumes. Director Sam Neufeld obviously had no idea how to handle the TV station segment, so it plays like an ''Amatuer Hour'' contest. The rest is strictly point the camera and shoot. And the stock footage used sticks out like a sore thumb. Although the supporting cast boasts a few vaguely familiar faces, the most prominent is prolific character actor Melton, who made 18 films for Lippert. He's playing a small-time crook in league with the smugglers, who, for no discernible reason, dresses up (unconvincingly) as an Oriental from time to time, and stands in front of the curio shop shop spouting Pidgin English. Most of the Oriental characters are played by occidental actors (par for the course in those days) with accents so thick it's hard to understand them-all except for Melton, who speaks with an unmistakable Brooklyn inflection.One of the few authentic Orientals is a burly wrestler billed as ''The Great Mr. Moto'' (whoever that is) whose main function is to playfully push partner in crime Melton around. ''Mask Of The Dragon'' like Lippert's other epics, was made simply to draw a fast buck and fill the bottom half of a double bill. Even at that, this one is about rock-bottom in terms of production values.(It wasn't called a ''Spartan Production'' for nothing.) The commentator on the very good-looking DVD (from VCI ENTERTAINMENT) does go on (and on) about the quality of the ''sets'', though they look like actual shops, offices, apartments, etc.It's hardly likely they were built for this film alone. The rest is mostly scene after scene of talk, with occasional bouts of comic violence.If that doesn't grab you, almost all of the background score is played on an Organ (!).This unique addition, for better or worse, reminds one of the old soap opera's from the Golden Days Of Radio, where each (hopefully) shocking incident was punctuated with a blast of the old Wurlitzer. Here, it makes an already pretty silly movie that much funnier. Though it clocks in at under an hour, it still feels padded, thanks to the singing cowboys and listless jokes that hit the ground like rocks. This was obviously an attempt to stretch the running time to the length of a feature, but it failed miserably. In fact, a few years later, the film was cut to 25 minutes and shown that way on TV. And, probably, all the useless bits filmed on the fictional TV show were eliminated, along with the songs. Still, Travis and Ryan are a fairly engaging pair of Heroes (Spunky Ms. Ryan would have made a lovely Lois Lane) and Melton, believe it or not, is occasionally amusing in an idiotic sort of way. He went on to greater fame as ''Alf Monroe'' on the comedy series ''Green Acres''.Strangely enough, he's not the only one here with a ''Green Acres'' connection. Leading Lady Ryan eventually married Pat Buttram,who played''Mr. Haney'' on the same show. Once again, the gaudy, colorful posters created for this film , promise much more than it ever delivers. Still, though ''Mask Of The Dragon'' is no classic, Lippert and Neufeld have done worse.See ''Fingerprints Don't Lie'' (filmed-back to back with this one featuring most of the same cast) for proof of that.
Dramma nella Kasbah (1953)
''He Took A Desperate Chance For A Fortune In Gold-And A Beautiful Woman!''
Well, that's the way this low-budget crime drama was promoted. Starring Screen Heavy George Raft (well past his prime) and filmed abroad in 1953, it was just an attempt by prolific B-movie producer Robert Lippert to exploit Raft's familiar name. Here, he is cast as a vacationer heading to Algeirs, for no reason in particular. There, he runs into considerable danger due to a case of mistaken identity. He is thought to be an agent investigating a gold theft that happened during the war. At times, it seems that almost everybody he runs into has had some connection to the robbery, (and most of them do) needlessly adding even more confusion to an already muddled plot. This is one film that needed all the exposition it could get, but, though details are hashed over endlessly, it doesn't make things any clearer. And though it was advertised as being ''filmed where it happened'', there isn't much of the expected exotic scenery. There are some sleazily authentic backgrounds, but little use is made of them. It might as well have been filmed in Idaho,for all the ''atmosphere'' it generates. This is a very claustrophobic looking production, which relies almost entirely on Raft's fast-fading charisma to keep it afloat. Sadly, he just doesn't make a very convincing hero (though he was a terrific villain) and he sounds as if he's imitating Humphrey Bogart. The rest of the cast is dubbed, including leading lady Gianna Maria Canale, who not only has no chemistry with Raft, but is almost twice his size, and moves like a robot. There is an early appearance by the great Greek actress Irene Papas,but she's wasted in a nothing role.Strangely, the movie retains enough interest to keep you watching to the end, but that's not saying much. And neither this film, nor the other Lippert quickies Raft did,generated any new interest in him. When this one reached the US, it landed on the bottom half of a double bill, supporting another Lippert production ''Sins Of Jezebel''. They are all available on DVD from VCI ENTERTAINMENT. And the transfers are better than the movies. That's pretty ironic-In most cases, it's usually the other way around. Incidentally, this one was advertised with one of the most striking posters a Lippert feature ever had. Too bad the advertising was superior to the product. Well, it's not as if THAT'S never happened before, time and time again...
The Split (1968)
What A Cast!
An underrated actioner from the Swinging Sixties, ''The Split'' boasts an incredible cast. Though former football great Jim Brown gets star billing, the meaty parts go to such reliable performers as Julie Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman,Gene Hackman, James Whitmore Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland. The story, about a well-planned and well-executed robbery (which takes place during a Football Game at the L.A Coliseum)is taut and mean.Hard-Bitten Harris and Career Criminal Brown hatch the plot, and it's up to him to round up a suitable group of thugs capable of pulling it off. And a nastier bunch has seldom been seen on screen. Donald Sutherland, in an early part as a psychopathic sadist, really makes his presence felt, as do Borgnine, Klugman and Oates (as usual.) As the leader of this group, Brown has a rather one note part. He's given little room for displaying anything much besides toughness. Diahann Carroll is wasted once again, as his ex-wife, who still loves him, and though she's the only ''good'' character in the story,she's supposedly tainted by her association with Brown. On the sidelines are seedy landlord Whitmore, and crooked cop Hackman. Both are excellent, but it's Julie Harris, successfully cast against type as the ''Brains''behind the scheme, who comes close to stealing the picture.(And, considering the rest of the cast, that's no small achievement.)Still, Hooker Joyce Jameson gets the best line, when she tells prospective client Oates: ''If you catch anything from me, it WON'T be a cold ''. Naturally, the real tension comes toward the end of the story, when the gang turn on each other, but until then, there's still plenty worth seeing.Yes, the ''Thieves Fall Out'' plot has been done before, but it's the twists and turns this movie takes that provide the excitement. Director Gordon Flemying maintains a brisk pace throughout, slowing down only for the obligatory ''love scenes''.The photography is excellent, and the same goes for Quincy Jones moody score (available on cd). The other technical credits are equally fine. This month, the ''Warner Archives'' will release the film, for the first time on home video. The DVD will be in it's original Anamorphic (Panavision) Widescreen aspect ratio, and, judging from the sample clip provided, should look fine. Hopefully, the snappy Theatrical Trailer will be provided as well. As the ads for the film proclaimed: ''Watch what happens when it's time for ''The Split''!.
Song of Norway (1970)
To call this thing ''bad'', is really doing it a disservice. It's actually beyond unbearable-a clear and relentlessly clumsy attempt to cash in on the tremendous success of ''The Sound Of Music''. If that wasn't enough, it features Edward G. Robinson and Florence Henderson in the SAME movie. Kind of like Pat Boone and Ann-Margret in the 1962 remake of ''State Fair''. No, Robinson and Henderson are not paired romantically. But they might as well have been-everything else in this so-called''Biography'' of Edvard Grieg is hilariously over the top, with everyone trying in vain to compete with the gorgeous location photography and substituting acting with simpers and bright, glassy smiles. Lucky for Florence, ''The Brady Bunch'' was just around the corner-because this ridiculous ''epic''pretty much killed her film career.Though the singing is fine, the music is not Grieg's best, and it's simply used as background for the scenery-which, by the second hour of this fiasco, begins to resemble one of those nature films which occasionally show up in small towns, accompanied by the Producer/Director who narrates it in person. One reviewer at the time this was first released stated: ''It seems to have been made by Trolls''. And not very talented ones, at that. Gives poor Norway a bad name.Not to mention Trolls....
A Seasonal Treasure!.
''Scrooge'' a lavish musical version of Charles Dickens ''A Christmas Carol'' is also one of the best yuletide films ever made. The story, which recounts the strange and wonderful events which cause a miserable miser to reform, lends itself beautifully to a musical format. Though this was not the first ''Carol'' to be set to music, it is easily the best. The acting, by a seasoned British cast, is wonderful.Albert Finney does not ''act'' the part of Ebenezer Scrooge, he IS Scrooge. Ably supported by Dame Edith Evans, Alec Guinnes and Kenneth More, he brings both humanity and pathos to his portrayal. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse (''Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory'') are both haunting and moving, and, when the occasion calls for it, upbeat and jolly as well. The production itself, well directed by Ronald Neame (''Great Expectations'') is handsomely filmed and suitable for all ages. Among the supporting cast, both Laurence Naismith and Kay Walsh (also in Neame's classic ''Oliver Twist') stand out as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwigg. Making a very auspicious film debut is Suzanne Neve, who makes a lovely Isabel, Scrooge's lost love. The orchestrations present the score to great advantage, and the excellent widescreen photography brings a fairy tale London to life. There are other fine adaptations out there, most notably ''Magoo's Christmas Carol'' (with it's terrific score), and Alastair Sim's ''Scrooge'', a somewhat darker version, but this one can stand with the best of them. Incidentally,the film was a box office failure back when it premiered in 1970, (though it broke records at the Radio City Music Hall) but subsequent television airings have alerted audiences to it's many virtues-and made it a Classic for all time.