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7/10
A Green-Blooded Gal On The Red Planet
27 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
In November 1966, television audiences were introduced, via the two-part "Star Trek" episode entitled "The Menagerie," to a green-skinned, hypnotically beautiful alien woman, an Orion dancing girl played in an unforgettable manner by the great Susan Oliver; a character who made an indelible impression despite not having a single line of dialogue. (Indeed, the excellent, 2014 DVD biography of Oliver's life would be called "The Green Girl," a tribute to one of her more fondly remembered roles.) But this was not the first such olive-toned alien siren to appear on screens that year! In March '66, in the Curtis Harrington-directed, AIP film "Queen of Blood," audiences had been exposed to another such character, but this one was of a far, far more inimical variety. As the story goes, producer/director Roger Corman had acquired some footage from two earlier Russian sci-fi epics, 1959's "Nebo Zovyot" ("The Sky Calls") and 1963's "Mechte Navstrechu" ("A Dream Come True"), the FX and story lines of which were used by Harrington in the formation of his screenplay. Harrington would go on to say that his film was shot in just over a week at a cost of around $65K, although those figures have been contradicted elsewhere. The result, to my great surprise, was not the Grade Z shlock fest that any viewer might be reasonably expecting, but rather, an atmospheric and at times genuinely eerie--not to mention compact and colorful--entertainment.

The film transpires in the futuristic year of, uh, 1990, when the Moon has already been colonized for two decades. At the Terran headquarters of the ISST (International Institute of Space Technology), a signal is intercepted from another galaxy by astro communications whiz Laura James (Judi Meredith). When it is finally decoded, the Institute's headman, Dr. Farraday (the great Basil Rathbone), releases the news that aliens from that galaxy are coming to visit our fair planet! But disaster strikes when the alien ship crash-lands on Mars. Thus, Earth sends to the Red Planet a rescue craft comprised of Laura, Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper!), and commander Anders Brockman (Robert Boon). The team finds the alien craft with only one alien male aboard, quite dead. Another ship is sent to the Martian moon of Phobos, containing astronauts Allan Brenner (John Saxon) and Tony Barrata (Don Eitner), and these two find, in a wrecked alien capsule, one survivor: a green-skinned alien woman (played by the Czech actress Florence Marly, with whom I was only familiar by dint of her appearance in the middling Humphrey Bogart vehicle "Tokyo Joe," of some 17 years earlier). This sole alien survivor is flown to the Terran ship on Mars and our band of heroes sets out for Earth with the silent mystery woman. Grant does his darnedest to communicate with the alien, and tries to get her to eat, but to no avail. "Perhaps she's only accustomed to some sort of liquid nourishment," Capt. Brockman suggests, a statement that is soon borne out in a very unfortunate manner. Before long, the crew is preyed upon by the sinister female, who turns out to be nothing less than a bloodsucking, trance-inducing monstrosity. No wonder the promotional poster for the film would sport the headline "Hideous beyond belief...with an inhuman craving"!

Harrington would also later claim that his movie was an indirect inspiration for the 1979 film "Alien," and I can almost see how that might be the case (although 1958's "It! The Terror From Beyond Space" is surely a more obvious and direct precursor). Indeed, the best part of this film are the claustrophobic scenes in which our small crew is trapped aboard a relatively minuscule craft (around 1/100th the size of the Nostromo in "Alien," perhaps) with a mysterious killer. And Marly, it should be mentioned, is absolutely aces as the enigmatic Queen. Without a line of dialogue, she manages to convey both menace and mystery. With her olive-green skin, blonde (with greenish tints) and pointy beehive hairdo, and reddish lipstick, she really is a sight to behold. And just look at her sneering, mocking, silent leer! No, we never really learn anything concrete about this Queen, or her background, but somehow, that only makes the film's quotient of cosmic awe all the greater. As mentioned, the film features those unique Russian special effects shots, brought to vivid life here using Pathe color, and those FX are both endearing and capable of engendering an almost surrealistic atmosphere. The landscape of and interior sets on the (unnamed) alien world are truly disorienting, and the aliens' unusual spaceships, featuring interlocking and circular tubing on their outsides, are like nothing you have ever seen before. The film's music, by one Leonard Morand, and atmospheric and haunting sound effects, by Nelson-Corso, add greatly to the freakiness factor here (never more so than in the film's opening credits, featuring beautiful and abstractly alien artwork by John Cline), while Harrington's direction is both competent and clean. (Harrington had previously impressed this viewer with his legendary B&W thriller "Night Tide," from 1961, which had starred Dennis Hopper, as well as the terrific horror film "What's the Matter With Helen," from 1971.) And how nice it is to see Basil Rathbone, here nudging toward the end of his legendary career but giving his all as the head of the IIST. (Rathbone had appeared in the Harrington film "Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet" in the previous year, which picture was filmed at the same time as "Queen of Blood.") Sadly, Rathbone would go on to end his cinematic career with such embarrassments as "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" (1966) and "Hillbillys in a Haunted House" (1967), and thus, "Queen of Blood" just might be the last film in which the great British actor would retain a semblance of dignity. And really, where else can the viewer get to see Rathbone, Saxon and Hopper all in one film? (I forgot to mention that "Famous Monsters of Filmland" editor Forrest J. Ackerman is supposedly somewhere in this picture's impressive little cast as well, although I never did quite spot him.) I don't want to oversell "Queen of Blood" here, but I must again stress that this film turned out to be far less cheesy, and a lot more artistically brought to the screen, than I had anticipated. Ending on a bleak note of unresolved menace, the film just might prove a nice diversion for those sci-fi AND horror fans who are in the mood for something different....
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7/10
Serendipity
13 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
There is a word, "serendipity," that Webster's defines as "an instance of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for," and I suppose that this would be the precise word to describe my experience with the 1968 film "The Lost Continent." I had set my DVR at home to record a film that I thought to be the old Cesar Romero film from 1951, "Lost Continent," a childhood favorite, and wound up getting this one instead. I was very disappointed when I discovered my error, but decided not to immediately delete what I'd recorded, and instead kept it in digital storage for a year or so. But when I finally sat down to watch "The Lost Continent" last night, what a nice surprise it turned out to be! And no wonder! The film is a product of the always reliable Hammer Studios, featuring fine acting support, pleasing if cheezy special effects, and an action-packed story line. Hammer initially released the film in June 1968, two months after "The Vengeance of She" and a month before one of its finer efforts, "The Devil Rides Out." Like that last film, "The Lost Continent" was based on a novel by the great adventure/horror novelist Dennis Wheatley, in this case his 1938 book "Uncharted Seas," and based on my limited reading of Wheatley ("The Devil Rides Out" and "The Haunting of Toby Jugg"), I have a feeling that the film played very fast and loose with his original story line. Be that as it may, the picture remains great fun, for young and old.

"The Lost Continent" begins most intriguingly, as we witness a burial at sea in progress. In attendance at the funeral are the crew and passengers of a tramp steamer...as well as a number of Spanish conquistadors! The viewer wonders how in the world this motley assemblage has possibly come together, and our question is soon answered when the ship's captain, Lansen (Eric Porter), thinks to himself "What happened to us? How did we all get here?," leading to an extended flashback. Thus, we get to meet the assorted crew and "ship of fools" passenger list of the tramp freighter Corita, and learn of what had happened to them. Lansen had been engaged in the illegal transport of 10 full tons of the highly dangerous explosive Phos B, departing from Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa, and bound for Caracas, Venezuela. His passengers included Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley), an alcoholic loudmouth and accomplished piano player; a disgraced doctor, Webster (Nigel Stock, whom some might recall as Cavendish "The Surveyor" in "The Great Escape"), and his pretty blonde daughter, Unity (Suzanna Leigh); and Eva Peters (German actress Hildegard Knef), on the run with stolen bonds that she had purloined from her dying husband, and pursued by the remarkably sleazy retriever Ricardi (Ben Carruthers). Trouble is not long in finding the Corita, however, as she is beset by a busted hull, a power outage, a leaking storage room (did I mention that the Phos B is highly explosive when touched by water?), and an incipient hurricane! After the mutiny and departure of half the crew, Lansen decides that it might indeed perhaps be wisest to abandon ship, and so he, his few passengers, and several others take to a lifeboat and hope for the best. By the strangest quirk of fate, and after one of the passengers is devoured by a shark and another by carnivorous weeds, the lifeboat finds itself slamming right into...the Corita, which is now befouled in a mass of the monster plants in what turns out to be the infamous Sargasso Sea. And as if killer flora weren't enough, Lansen & Co. soon find themselves squaring off against a monstrous, green-eyed octopus AND the descendants of Spanish conquistadors, no less, who have been marooned on a lonely island therein for centuries. (The title of the film, "The Lost Continent," is something of a misnomer; "The Lost Islet" might perhaps have been closer to the mark.) And then matters grow even worse, if possible, with the advent of humongous crab monsters and the final flaming battle between the Corita and the religious zealots of the Spanish galleon....

As you can probably tell, "The Lost Continent" grows increasingly wilder and loopier as it proceeds, with nonstop thrills piling upon thrills. It is replete with imaginative touches, such as that virtually indescribable monster in a belowdecks pit aboard the Spanish ship into which poor unfortunates are thrown, as well as the balloonlike, bladderish shoes and shoulder pads that assist those Sargasso dwellers in walking over the marshy waters. Interestingly, all the Corita's passengers turn out to be different from how they initially appear; the doctor is more weaselly, his prim daughter more wanton and sluttish, the drunken Tyler more sober and valiant, the mysterious Eva more sympathetic, the criminal captain Lansen more likable. And just in case you were wondering if this Hammer film supplies us with one of their trademarked buxotic lovelies, fit to be shown in the later coffee-table book "Hammer Glamour," here, we are given the character of Sarah, an Englishwoman (played by the scrumptious Dana Gillespie) who is also a descendant of marooned sailors. The film features virtually nothing in the way of romantic subplots (although it is mildly inferred that Tyler & Sarah and Lansen & Eva might be future love interests) and very little in the way of humor...other than the sight of Dr. Webster reading a Dennis Wheatley paperback in the ship's saloon. (I wish that I could have made out the title.) "The Lost Continent" has been directed with panache by Michael Carreras (the son of Hammer Studios founder James Carreras), who also produced and wrote the film's script (albeit under the pen name Michael Nash, for some obscure reason). The film features a noisy, blaring score by Gerard Schumann that at times is strangely interspersed by what sounds like jazzlike lounge music, and the opening credits are accompanied by a very non sequitur song by one Roy Phillips, as sung by the British jazz trio The Peddlers; a song that might have been more appropriate for a romance film, rather than a pulpish sci-fi adventure. Strangely enough, the film was given an "X" rating upon its initial release, a fact that I can in no way understand. Yes, there is a fairly high body count in the film, as well as fairly steady violence, but of the sort that would in no way be problematic for an 8-year-old to watch (no gore at all), and nothing in the way of nudity or even sexual suggestiveness. So go figure. Personally, I found the film quite a hoot, and wish that I could have been lucky enough to have seen it in a theater when it was first run. Still, I do feel fortunate to have discovered this truly entertaining outing from the House of Hammer more than half a century later. Serendipity can truly be a wonderful thing!
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7/10
Colorato E Fantasioso
13 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The mid-1960s was a very interesting time for Italian sci-fi on the big screen. In September '65, future giallo legend Mario Bava gave the world the artfully done "Planet of the Vampires," a film whose set design, it has been suggested, very possibly influenced the look of the movie "Alien" over a decade later. In December '65, director Elio Petri delivered the film that is, for this viewer, the best of the Italian sci-fi bunch to this date, "The 10th Victim," based on the short story "Seventh Victim" by Robert Sheckley. Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, the film remains a knockout more than half a century later. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, director Antonio Margheriti, once again working under his alias of Anthony Dawson, was working on a string of relatively low-budget films that would eventually become known as the Gamma One Quadrilogy. These four films were shot roughly simultaneously and, astoundingly, over a period of just three months! Originally intended for television, this quartet would eventually be released on the big screen around the world, those films being "The Wild, Wild Planet" (1966), "The War of the Planets" (1966), "War Between the Planets" (1966) and "Snow Devils" (1967). There seems to exist a great deal of confusion as to the order in which the films were released, and the order in which they were shot, a problem compounded by the fact that each picture has alternate titles and both Italian and U.S. release dates. The IMDb and Wikipedia give conflicting information in this regard; personally, I tend to trust Tim Lucas, of "Video Watchdog" fame, more than any other source, but really, no one source can be said to be absolutely conclusive. But what everybody does seem to agree on is the fact that "The Wild, Wild Planet" is the first of the four-part series, at least as far as internal chronology is concerned. Originally released under the Italian title "I Criminali della Galassia" ("Criminals of the Galaxy"), the film is fondly remembered today more for its unique set designs and color than for anything else.

As far as the plot of this truly wild, wild film is concerned, it just barely manages to hang together, but I will endeavor to boil it down for you...as far as I can make it out. The picture opens with a sequence that, for all I know, might very well have influenced Stanley Kubrick a few years later, when he shot "2001: A Space Odyssey." We see a ship approaching the enormous orbiting space wheel that is Gamma One, maneuvering ballet style in its approach while elegant music is heard in the background. Soon after, we meet the UDSCO (United Democracies Space Command) head of the station, Commander Mike Halstead (handsome, granite-jawed, Wisconsin-born actor Tony Russell), who is giving a tour to a visiting scientist, Dr. Nurmi (Massimo Serato, who had played a lawyer in "The 10th Victim"). Nurmi manages to disgust the commander with his talk of using living, pulsating body parts to create a more perfect human being. But soon after, Halstead is called down to the Earth's surface in the face of a worldwide emergency. It seems that thousands of people have been kidnapped mysteriously and have gone missing, the method of their abduction unknown. But a little sleuthing on Halstead's part reveals the truth: An army of deflatable (!) female robots, in tow with their bald and sunglasses-sporting male companions, have, by some means, been shrinking down their victims to doll size and bringing them to the artificial planetoid known as Delphus, a world owned by "The Corporations," of which Dr. Nurmi's CBM company is one. (These ill-intentioned corporations just might also have been an influence on the later "Alien" movie.) And when Halstead's own galpal Connie Gomez (the communications officer and martial arts instructor on Gamma One, and played by the luscious Lisa Gastoni) is lured to Delphus by Nurmi, on the pretense of it being a primo vacation spot (!), Halstead has no other choice than to follow, along with a few of his loyal buddies, including another hunky officer named Jake (Franco Nero, who, later that year, would enter the big time by dint of his starring role in the spaghetti Western "Django"). And once on Delphus, the team discovers the bitter truth: Nurmi is intent on creating a perfect race of humans, using his kidnapped perfect specimens as piecemeal grafts. And, for his latest project, he intends to surgically merge himself with Connie, to make the ultimate human...a most flabbergasting prospect, indeed!

As you might be able to tell, "The Wild, Wild Planet" really is a suitable title for this way-out conceit. The film boasts a lot of clever ideas that have been brought to the big screen with a minimum of lire expended (no wonder TCM's Jeff Stafford has called the movie's set designs "a consistent marvel of imagination over budgeting..."), and if you can overlook the cheapjack nature of the special FX--Earth's Gamma City, where UDSCO has its base, looks especially fake, but somehow, charmingly, surreally and dreamily so--you just might wind up having a good time here. The effects used to portray spacewalking, the exterior of Gamma One itself, Halstead's wobbly flying saucer and spacebound rocket ship, and the lasers that Halstead & Co. carry on their hips (these lasers look more like short-range flamethrowers than anything else!) are especially clumsy in execution...certainly of a caliber far lower than the effects being used at the same time in Japanese kaiju eiga films, as created by the master Eiji Tsuburaya. So yes, the film is better when it doesn't reach too far. But you know what? Some of the effects to be had here are actually quite fine, especially that Hall of Mirrors sequence on Delphus (a scene straight out of Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai"), the destructive climax on Delphus, as oceans of what looks like blood cascade in torrents through Nurmi's installation (a destructive ending straight out of a Bond film...as done by Ed Wood, perhaps), and especially, those groovy, spaceshiplike ground cars that Halstead zips around in on planet Earth. The film is filled with bits of gross-out grotesquerie (a tray of body parts that Nurmi throws down a garbage chute; robots going up in flames under Halstead's laser beam; a botched shrinkage job on an Earth general, leaving him a wizened little person, rather than a doll; a room full of botched, mutantlike failures that Nurmi displays) and throwaway bursts of strangeness (such as a look at the Proteus Theater on Earth, where a standing audience watches dancers flit about dressed as butterflies). And speaking of Bond films, Nurmi himself, toward the film's end, comes off very much like a 007 adversary, not only giving our hero a tour of his secret lair, but declaring of his fiendish plot "It might seem the work of a sick mind; nevertheless, I've worked in my own way for the good of humanity..." The film's score by A.F. Lavagnino, its bizarre script by Ivan Reiner, and its direction by Margheriti (who'd previously given the world not only the sci-fi warmups "Assignment Outer Space" and "Battle of the Worlds," in the early '60s, but also such wonderful horror fare as the Barbara Steele Gothics "Castle of Blood" and "The Long Hair of Death") all result in a film that is moddish, trippy and disorienting in the extreme. Although I would never suggest the use of recreational drugs in this day and age, I will admit that "The Wild, Wild Planet" is a film that is perhaps best viewed under an altered consciousness. It might be cheaply made but it is assuredly colorful and imaginative, and its heart is surely in the right place....
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5/10
Kalahati Tao, Kalahati Hayop
27 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The 1959 film "Terror Is a Man" was the very first horror picture to be made in the country of the Philippines. A very well done but uncredited reiteration of H. G. Wells' classic 1896 novel "The Island of Dr. Moreau," the film was gorgeously shot in B&W, featured stylish direction by Geraldo de Leon and (again, an uncredited) Eddie Romero, as well as an intelligent script that was punctuated by interesting speculations on the nature of man and beast. Over the next 10 years, Romero worked at a fairly furious pace, eventually carving out for himself a place in the world's pantheon of great horror directors by coming out with his legendary Blood Island trilogy: "Brides of Blood" (1968), "The Mad Doctor of Blood Island" (1969) and "Beast of Blood" (1970), all starring American actor John Ashley. The team would come out with one more picture, the truly bewildering "Beast of the Yellow Night," in '71, before deciding on their next project. As it turned out, that project would be still another remake of the famous Wells story, but this time, Romero would direct by himself and the film would be shot in full color. The results, sadly, are nowhere what the original Filipino horror film had been. Whereas "Terror Is a Man" is a surprisingly artfully done film that shows restraint in its use of shock scares, their new endeavor, the meaninglessly titled "The Twilight People," was quite the opposite. Released in April '72, the film was a modest success at the box office, and one that Ashley would go on to speak of fondly. Today, one can only wonder why.

To be fair, the picture does open quite promisingly, with lovely underwater photography and cool lounge jazz as the opening credits are displayed. We then see Ashley's character, world-roving adventurer Matt Farrell (a relation, perhaps, to his Jim Farrell character in "Brides of Blood"?), kidnapped while scuba diving and brought via ship to an unknown island 300 miles from nowhere. It is a pretty interesting opening, to be sure, while the viewer, as well as Matt, wonders just what the hell is going on. As it turns out, he has been brought to the island home of a scientist named Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay, who, I eventually realized, looked familiar to me by dint of his having played the character of Landru on the classic "Star Trek" episode "The Return of the Archons"!), who has decided that human beings must be adapted biologically to meet the ever-changing needs of an increasingly dangerous world. To the film's detriment, this mad doctor does not reveal any further details of the work that he is engaged in, but the viewer does get to see the results: Half-human/half-animal hybrids have been successfully created by Gordon and are now being kept in cages in an underground cavern. Thus, there is Ayesa the Panther Woman (the great Pam Grier, unrecognizable here behind her fangs, although one could never miss that bodacious body of hers; Grier, it will be remembered, was appearing in any number of films made in the Philippines at that time, including such marvelous entertainments as "The Big Doll House," "The Big Bird Cage" and "Black Mama, White Mama"), Darmo the Bat Man (Tony Gosalvez), Kuzma the Antelope Man (Ken Metcalfe, who had also appeared in "Beast of the Yellow Night"), Lupa the Wolf Woman (Mona Morena; actually, if it weren't for the credits, I would not have known what kind of an animal she was supposed to be) and Primo the Ape Man (Kim Ramos). Gordon has decided that Matt is the perfect human subject for his further experiments, a revelation that naturally makes the stunned American think only of fleeing. And he does indeed effect an escape from Gordon's fortresslike compound, aided by the mad doctor's pretty daughter Neva (Pat Woodell, who also appeared in "The Big Doll House," but whom most viewers will recall as Bobbi Jo on TV's "Petticoat Junction") and those five newly liberated, hybrid creations. And in the film's second half, things take a decided turn into "The Most Dangerous Game" territory, as Gordon's lieutenant, the blond, possibly gay and decidedly homicidal Steinman (Jan Merlin), along with a band of cutthroat Filipinos, hunts the fleeing party down....

"The Twilight People" is fun to watch in a pulpy, Saturday-afternoon-at-the-movies kind of way, but objectively speaking, and by any legitimate and honest yardstick, really is objectively bad. Besides its lazy script by Jerome Small and Romero, which does not even make reference to the doctor's human/animal experiments once--not once--it features makeups (by one Antonio Artieda) for its quintet of creatures that look like something a 4th grader might have concocted for a Halloween trick-or-treat outing. The budget for this film was reportedly somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000, and I'm guessing that makeup accounted for very little of it. Indeed, the five creations of Dr. Gordon will most likely elicit laughs rather than chills in most viewers. Ashley is appealing as always here, but seems rather dour and humorless; granted, the situation that his character finds himself in does not lend itself to chuckles. Romero's direction is rather spiritless and distinctly unstylish, with some confusing jump cuts and poorly thought-out action scenes. Happily, the film does feature some lovely scenery, having been shot in the middle of some Philippines location of great verdant beauty; it never ceases to amaze me how GREEN the jungles in that country can be. And speaking of vivid colors, viewers of the Blood Island trilogy will perhaps not be surprised to learn that this film does not shy away from showing blood and gore in its violent set pieces, but the gore on display here always looks patently phony. (When will filmmakers realize that blood does not look bright cherry red in color, or the glistening orange of, say, Heinz ketchup...both of which are used prodigiously here?) Again, several scenes try hard but wind up only causing the viewer to chuckle. My favorite: the one in which Primo the Ape Man tries to rape Neva and is beaten off by Antelope Man, after which Bat Man attempts to fly to her aid but falls flat on his face after an unsuccessful launch from a nearby tree. And, oh...that final confrontation between Matt and Steinman, which the film seemed to have been building up to, is decidedly anticlimactic, at best. Bottom line: A fun but distinctly slapdash effort, perhaps best suited for watching with your favorite 8-year-old nephew on the couch. Other viewers would best be advised to stick with that earlier 1959 Filipino version, or even better, the 1932 film from Paramount, "Island of Lost Souls." Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman in that film might not be nearly as bodacious as Pam Grier, but she sure is a LOT more convincing!
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7/10
A Stroke Of Very Bad Luck
21 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Not precisely a horror movie, a murder mystery, a slasher film, OR a domestic tragedy, "The Night Digger," a British film that was initially released in May 1971, yet combines elements of all those genres into one truly sui generis experience. A largely forgotten film, "The Night Digger" (or, as it was originally released in the U.K., "The Road Builder"...an inferior title, as it turns out) is perhaps best known today--for those who know of it at all, that is--for its leading-role performance by the great Kentucky-born actress Patricia Neal, as well as for the contributions of screenwriter Roald Dahl and composer Bernard Herrmann. As the story goes, Neal, after suffering from a series of debilitating strokes, while pregnant, and following her appearance in 1965's "In Harm's Way," was nursed back to health by Dahl, eventually making a remarkable recovery. Her baby was delivered successfully, and she soon regained most of her abilities, a slight limp being the only outward sign of the ordeal she had been through. Her return to the screen in 1968's "The Subject Was Roses" garnered her an Oscar nomination, but following this, her offers were few, and her husband, to whom she had been married since 1953 and to whom she remained married until 1983, thus endeavored to write a screenplay that might be a perfect vehicle for her. Dahl's script for the film in question would be his third of an eventual four, having previously adapted the Ian Fleming novels "You Only Live Twice" (1967, and one of this viewer's personal favorite films) and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) for the big screen; a mere month after "The Night Digger" was released, his "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," an adaptation of his own novel, would please and delight the world. "The Road Builder" was based on the first novel by New Zealander author Joy Cowley, entitled "Nest in a Fallen Tree" (1967), and apparently, Dahl, as he had with his other adaptations, made liberal changes in writing his screenplay. The result was not exactly what the world would call a triumph for all concerned, but given almost half a century's time to lay fallow and find its audience, the picture today is surely one ripe for discovery for those with a taste for something unique and different.

In the film, the viewer makes the acquaintance of a 40ish spinster named Maura Prince, who lives with her blind and adoptive mother, Edith (Pamela Brown, a great British character actress whom many will recall from such films as 1942's "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" and 1945's "I Know Where I'm Going"), in a crumbling Victorian mansion somewhere in the English countryside. Maura had once had a five-month affair with a young man whom she had run away with, but that romance ended when she had suffered a stroke (as had Neal, who was also in her mid-40s at the time of this film), and when the young man had abandoned her. Her mother had nursed her back to health, and had later lost her sight. Thus, Maura remains in the decrepit mansion, caring for her mother out of a sense of guilt and loyalty, if not exactly love, and the relationship between the two is visibly strained, to say the least. Maura desires to spend a few hours a week giving speech therapy to other stroke victims in a nearby hospital, but is unable to, due to her mother's clinging ways. (The dynamic between the two will surely strike a chord for many women, a dynamic that was explored painfully well in 1942's Bette Davis classic "Now, Voyager.") Into the lives of these two miserable women comes a 20-year-old biker named Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay, who was to give such a memorable performance as Sir Lancelot in 1981's "Excalibur"), who claims to be a friend of Edith's nephew (whether this is in fact true is never determined) and who is looking for work as a handyman. Edith is immediately taken by the young biker, especially after he claims to be a devout churchgoer (a patent lie, as is later shown), and Billy is hired forthwith, even being given Maura's room to live in, to the younger woman's anger and disgust. But after some weeks, Billy starts to wear Maura down, and the lonely spinster actually begins to fall in love with the strange young man! But what the Prince ladies do not seem to be aware of is the fact that Billy is also the madman responsible for the six murders of young women that have transpired in the neighboring villages, and that he will soon begin to feel the need to slay again...especially after seeing a pretty nursery school teacher exiting the church that Edith has compelled him to attend....

Those viewers who sit down to watch "The Night Digger" expecting a tale of suspense and bloody violence might be a tad disappointed at how things unreel here. The film features nothing in the way of gore, hardly any violence, and is barely suspenseful at all...except for the remarkably creepy scene in which Billy enters that schoolteacher's bedroom at night and strips naked while the woman sleeps, preparatory to...well, we never actually see what happens next, and indeed, it is even to be doubted that Billy actually rapes the poor young woman. (In black-and-white flashbacks, we see a few instances from Billy's youth that go far in explaining his difficulties with women, and it is to be inferred that had such pharmaceuticals as Viagra existed back in the early 1970s, then a lot of problems might have been avoided, not to mention lives spared, as a result.) All we know is that sometime after, Billy is seen riding his chopper through the night with his unfortunate victim strapped behind him, right before burying her at a construction site. His second victim, a pretty nurse who comes to visit Edith, is done away with in a manner that we also do not get to see. So again, those expecting grisly thrills and chills here are due for a letdown; this is hardly a slasher film, despite dealing as it does with a serial killer. Rather, what the film has on its mind is more of the effect that Billy's presence has on Maura and on her relationship with her mother, and so when the lonely spinster and Billy run away to the Scottish Highlands together to live in a clifftop cottage by the sea, the viewer really is surprised at how things have turned out. The three terrific performances by the main players here are surely the film's main selling points. But there are other pleasures to be had here, as well, including still another fine score by Bernard Herrmann, who, five years earlier, had completed his eighth and final work for director Alfred Hitchcock (ninth, if you count his work as sound advisor for "The Birds"). Director Alastair Reid adds some interesting stylistic touches to his film to keep things interesting, and Dahl's script incorporates bits of humor (such as those gossiping neighbors) to keep things offbeat and quirky. The film is consistently interesting and engrossing, and kept me wondering throughout as to what could possibly happen next. I enjoyed it all the way through...until those last five minutes.

Okay, I'm not going to lie to you: I couldn't understand those last five minutes to save my life. The ending of this film is surely an open-ended one, and decidedly subject to the viewer's interpretation. Thus, I cannot say with certainty if Maura, as it turns out, was aware of Billy's homicides before she ran off with him or not, or why, upon hearing him play the harmonica in that Scottish cottage, she suddenly becomes shocked and tearful. Billy's own actions in that denouement, leading to tragedy in the film's final moments, are also a bit perplexing. I have my own ideas as to what was going on, but again, cannot say with surety if I am correct or not. Viewers who demand clarity and closure in their motion pictures might again be a tad disappointed in how Dahl has chosen to wrap up his picture. Still, this head-scratcher of an ending should in no wise deter potential viewers from checking out this most unusual and ultimately haunting film.
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7/10
Elsa Uses Her Head
6 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The film career of Mississippi-born Dana Andrews seemed to undergo some kind of metamorphosis as the actor entered his third decade before the cameras. During the 1940s, the characters that Andrews brought to life were in the main sympathetic and likeable, whether they were such all-American Joes as in "The Ox-Bow Incident," "State Fair" and "The Best Years of Our Lives," or troubled cops as in "Laura" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends." He managed to maintain that sympathetic demeanor throughout the '50s (I particularly like him in the exceptionally fine, 1957 horror film "Night of the Demon"), but come the 1960s, and as Andrews entered his 50s and his features coarsened a bit, his roles gradually segued into personges who were alarmingly less sympathetic. In 1965, in the sci-fi thriller "Crack in the World," his Dr. Sorenson character was so pigheaded and mistaken in his experiments that he caused the planet Earth to split in two, and that same year, in "Brainstorm," he portrayed a husband so vile that the audience cheers when he is murdered in cold blood by his wife's lover. But it was in one of his 1966 offerings, the British production "The Frozen Dead," that Andrews portrayed a character with even less likeability, if possible, than any other that he had ever attempted. In this film, Dana plays the part of one Dr. Norberg, an ex-Nazi now living in England, who is working on a method of bringing back to life the dozen or so cryogenically stored soldiers of the Third Reich who have been entrusted to his care. Originally released in October of '66 in the U.K. and over a year later in the U.S., the film is a surprisingly solid one that is immensely bolstered by Andrews' performance in the lead role; a somewhat daring one for the formerly sympathetic Hollywood leading man.

In the film, we learn that Dr. Norbert has indeed perfected his method of bringing the Nazi corpsicles back to life but that one major problem remains: All the soldiers who have been successfully thawed out after 20 years of deep freeze are mentally unhinged; their bodies function but their minds, after having been prodded by the doctor, remain fixed on the one mania that has been hit upon. Thus, one of the soldiers can do nothing but bounce an imaginary rubber ball; another endlessly combs his hair; another thinks of himself as an old man; one sits and cowers in perpetual fear; and still another counts beads on a rosary. And then there is "Prisoner 3" (played by Edward Fox, in his first credited role), who just happens to be Norberg's brother and the father of his niece, and who is now homicidally violent in nature. Norberg's travails grow even more complicated with the arrival at his country estate of Nazi general Lubeck (Czech actor Karel Stepanek) and Capt. Tirpitz (Basil Henson), who inform him that his experiments must be stepped up and his problems with the corpsicles' minds overcome posthaste, as 1,500 more Nazi soldiers are awaiting their turn to be unthawed! Norberg declares his desire for a living human brain to study, and his wish soon attains fulfillment with the unexpected arrival of his niece Jean (Anna Palk) and her good friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck). Norberg's weasly assistant Essen (Alan Tilvern) drugs the lovely Elsa in her sleep and later slays her, blaming the deed on Prisoner 3. Norberg decides that since the poor girl is dead anyway, he might as well use her brain as a means of study. Thus, we soon see Elsa's severed head in a wooden box, nourishing tubes attached to her noggin, her brain exposed but covered with some kind of transparent dome for study. And as if matters could not grow any more complex, the distraught Jean immediately starts snooping around in search of her friend; an American scientist named Dr. Roberts (a nod to the Beatles' just released song "Doctor Robert"?), played by Philip Gilbert, arrives to help Norbert in his work; and poor Elsa begins to evince the ability to communicate telepathically with Jean and send messages into her dreams! It would seem that it is only a matter of time until Jean discovers what her uncle is up to in his basement laboratory, and that her father did NOT in fact die in a Nazi concentration camp decades before....

Those viewers who sit down to watch "The Frozen Dead" expecting some kind of Grade Z spectacle might be a bit surprised at what they wind up getting instead. The film, despite its outrageous premise, is very much a class production--this is decidedly not a shlock movie--and director/producer/writer Herbert J. Leder, who had previously been responsible for the script for the great sci-fi film "Fiend Without a Face" and who would go on to write and direct the Roddy McDowall/Jill Haworth film "It!,"does a fine job in all three departments here. What a double feature this film and "It!" must have made, when the two first appeared together here in the States in November '67! The film looks terrific, even sumptuous in parts, and was shot in beautiful Eastmancolour, but strangely enough, when shown here in the U.S., it was screened in B&W; I am very glad that I recently got to see it in its original color, so as to better appreciate its often surprising visuals. Plus, in B&W, the audience never got to see that Elsa's head, in that wooden box, was the strangest shade of aqua blue--a most disconcerting visual, indeed--or the bizarre tints in that wall of living arms (!) that Norbert has in his basement. In the lead female role, Anna Palk (who had previously appeared in such horror affairs as "The Earth Dies Screaming" and "The Skull") is both lovely and shapely, and Kathleen Breck is surprisingly effective as that living head, making the most of mere eye movements and grimacing expressions. Her final words as the film closes--"Bury me, bury me"--should linger long in the viewer's memory. As for Andrews, he is rock solid here, playing his role absolutely straight and even--dare I say it--bringing a note of sympathy to his character. Here is a crazed Nazi scientist who balks at killing--he would never condone murder to obtain his living brain, which is why Essen feels compelled to do the dirty deed himself--and who is shocked to the core when he learns of what Essen has done. (Andrews is such a terrific actor that we can tell his reaction via his eyes alone.) "The Frozen Dead," of course, was just one of many offerings in the curious horror subgenre that might be called "Nazi zombie films." It is assuredly superior to the legendary camp classic "Madmen of Mandoras" (1963), which was recast as "They Saved Hitler's Brain" in 1968, and more fun than 1977's "Shock Waves." (I still have not gotten around to seeing such Nazi zombie films as 1981's "Zombie Lake," 1982's "Oasis of the Zombies" and 2009's "Dead Snow.") As regards the subgenre of films that I suppose might be called "living heads," "The Frozen Dead" is not nearly as deliriously crazy as "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" (1962) or as startlingly bizarre as the 1959 German film simply entitled "The Head," but is still capable of stunning the viewer with any number of outre segments, and indeed, the final fates of Dr. Norberg and Gen. Lubeck must be seen to be believed! I'm not sure that even 1,500 revived Nazi soldiers would have made an effective army in the nuclear era of 1966, but thank goodness that Elsa here was still capable of using her head!
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6/10
Good Grefe
30 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
I see it every time I fly down to Ft. Lauderdale to visit my family: the dividing line between civilization and the primeval. As the plane banks west from over the Atlantic, one can view below the sprawling metropolis of the city and its suburbs...until one's eye hits that dividing line. The line is drawn straight as a rule for as far as the eye can see; the line separating the habitations of Man from the greenish-gray expanse that is the Everglades. The demarcation never fails to impress, no matter how many times one makes the trip. And from my two personal experiences into the Everglades, as a casual tourist, I can tell you that I cannot imagine a more hellacious environment in which to be lost or stuck; almost 2,000 square miles of empty sawgrass prairie, freshwater marshland, mangrove swamps, pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and sloughs. But not quite empty, of course; the area just teems with all sorts of wildlife, both harmless and inimical, there in one of the most inhospitable environments in the southeastern U.S. (The thought has always struck me: How did Ponce de Leon and his men trudge around this area, back in 1521, dressed in their full gear?!?!) But despite my imaginings concerning the very unpleasantness of the area (and I'm not denying that there is also much in the way of beauty to be seen there...just that the place, for me--who am not a lover of heat, humidity and dangerous critters--is something of a steaming hellhole), it is hard to conceive of having a worse time there than the seven characters in the 1966 film "Death Curse of Tartu" suffer through. The film, written and directed by one William Grefe, was just one of the filmmaker's three offerings that year, the others being something called "Sting of Death" (supposedly featuring some kind of mutated jellyfish monster!) and "The Devil's Sisters" (some kind of true crime tale taking place in Mexico). It is a film that just barely manages to get the job done, but that ultimately squeaks through pleasingly.

But the film does not begin too promisingly, to be sure. During its first 15 minutes, we see a man named Sam Gunter (Frank Weed, a Joel McCrea type, who was also the "animal trainer" for the film; the first actor in this film's no-name cast) endlessly prowl around his Everglades encampment, after having been warned by his Seminole guide Billy (Bill Marcus) that the spirit of Tartu--an Indian witch doctor who had died 400 years earlier--protects the area from desecration. Tartu had been buried nearby and, as legend has it, can turn himself into various animals to take vengeance on those who would profane his burial mound. And surely enough, Sam IS soon attacked by a humongous constrictor and smothered to death in very short order. And then his colleagues arrive on the scene: anthropology teacher Ed Tison and his wife Julie (Fred Pinero and Babbette Sherrill), and two student couples: Tommy and Joanne (Gary Holtz and Maurice Stewart; I know...Maurice?) and Johnny and Cindy (Sherman Hayes and Mayra Gomez; I told you it was a no-name cast!). Despite finding the Indian tablet that Gunter had discovered, and despite being able to decipher its dread warning regarding Tartu, Tison still insists, "Anyone that believes in that should believe in ghosts, goblins, and the Wicked Witch of the West!" But, of course, the vengeful spirit of Tartu IS in fact quite real, and before long, changes into a shark (in the freshwater canals of the Everglades, no less; serves those dumb kids right for taking a swim in the dubious-at-best waters there!), a poisonous snake, and a relentless gator to eliminate the pesky intruders. And then matters somehow grow even worse, as Tartu himself returns to life in the human flesh (played by the surprisingly handsome Doug Hobart) to finish off the job....

"Death Curse of Tartu" is a distinctly amateurish production that still succeeds, somehow. The acting is just barely passable and the script was surely no Oscar bait. Sections of the film seem to drag interminably (such as that opening sequence), while others come off as mere sops to the teenage audiences of the day (such as the section in which the four teens turn on their transistor radio and start gyrating wildly on the shores of the swamp...the girls in their bikinis, natch). Still, the film does manage to build to a fair degree of suspense, and the body count is quite high (five out of the seven main characters don't make it through, and there is no way of predicting which ones will survive the ordeal). Part of the reason for the film's success, it must be said, is the overly dramatic and quite frenetic musical score by Al Green (yes, THAT Al Green, here billed as "Greene," although I'm not sure if he was responsible for all the film's background music or just the tune that the teens boogy to). And that Mayra Gomez...what a screamer she is, offering up perhaps the best instance of sustained caterwauling that I've heard since Fay Wray cowered before King Kong in the depths of Skull Island, and Carol Ohmart retreated before that living skeleton in "House on Haunted Hill." Just listen to Mayra shriek for a good solid five minutes (!) as she flees from that preternaturally persistent gator! What a pair of lungs! The film is atmospheric (yes, it WAS indeed shot in the Everglades) and somehow convincing, ultimately, and each one of its characters, even the two who manage to come out alive by the end, suffers some terrible experience in it. Ultimately, it is a surprisingly pleasing film, as mentioned, and one that reinforces my conviction not to cross that barrier line into the Everglades anytime soon....
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7/10
A Flabbergasting Mix OF Film Genres
24 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
I suppose that I owe director John Landis a huge debt of thanks, as he was the one who first introduced me to the movie in question, "The Monster and the Girl"...a film that I may very well have never heard of, without his knowledgeable guidance. As the TCM guest programmer one evening recently, Landis--himself the director of one of the truly great modern-day horror films, "An American Werewolf in London"--told host Ben Mankiewicz that he had selected the 1941 film because he found it to be totally unique, and indeed, a viewing of the picture will surely leave the viewer thinking that this highly effective little "B picture" really is a sui generis experience. Conflating as it does the gangster film, the courtroom drama, and the mad scientist movie, "The Monster and the Girl" manages to surprise at every turn, and as Mankiewicz noted, the actors in the uniformly impressive cast manage to keep straight faces throughout and play things completely straight. A Paramount film released in February 1941, the picture is surely a relatively obscure one today, but as the TCM screening showed so revealingly, it is one that assuredly deserves to be brought back into the public spotlight for the modern audience.

The film cleaves fairly evenly into two discrete halves. In the first section of the film (a rather fast-moving film, by the way, that clocks in at a remarkably concise 65 minutes), the viewer learns the facts, via multiple flashbacks, concerning the trial of Scot Webster (Phillip Terry, who had recently impressed me via his work in the 1960 film "The Leech Woman"). Webster had been wrongly accused of the murder of a minor gangster who had been in the employ of a major underworld figure named Bruhl (Paul Lukas, here two years prior to winning the Best Actor Oscar for his work in "Watch on the Rhine"). Webster had come to the big city looking for his newly married sister, Susan (Ellen Drew, who many will remember from her role as Thea in the superb 1945 horror film "Isle of the Dead"), who had wearied of the small-town life, gone to the big city, gotten married, and had innocently been drawn into a life of prostitution in Bruhl's orbit. Webster is found guilty of the crime, however, and is summarily put to death by electrocution. But before he is led to the hot seat, he is visited by a scientist named Dr. Parry (the great George Zucco), who asks the condemned man for permission to use his brain after the electrocution in one of his experiments. Thus, the film smoothly and stunningly segueways into its second, more horror-intensive section, and we soon see Parry and his assistant placing the dead man's gray matter into the noggin of an oversized gorilla, which beast soon escapes from his confinement and goes on a mission of vengeance, not only on the prosecuting attorney who had gotten him convicted, but also on Bruhl and all his underlings as well....

"The Monster and the Girl," it strikes one in retrospect, is a somewhat sensational title for a film that is actually quite restrained, highly atmospheric and surprisingly well done. Director Stuart Heisler--who would go on to direct, six years later, one of this viewer's all-time favorite films, "Smash-up, The Story of a Woman," and later still the lesser Humphrey Bogart films "Tokyo Joe" and "Chain Lightning"--helms his film with style to spare, incorporating any number of unusual camera placements (I love the overhead shot of our avenger gorilla stalking his prey from the rooftops). Heisler's work here is shown to beautiful effect by the lensing of cinematographer Victor Milner, some of whose B&W shots (such as the outside view of Parry's forbidding home, as well as the low-angle glimpses of his formidable laboratory) are things of genuine beauty. Besides the fine players already mentioned, the film showcases the talents of a number of lesser-known character actors, here playing Bruhl gang members...actors such as the perpetually slimy Marc Lawrence, not to mention Joseph Calleia and Gerald Mohr. (You may not recognize these names, but trust me, if you have seen a number of movies from the 1940s, you have probably seen their faces!)

In addition to the Homo sapiens actors, the film also offers up two "animal performances" that are simply wonderful. The first is the remarkable canine support given by Skippy the dog, who is touchingly able to recognize Scot, his old master--even though Scot is now encased in the body of a gorilla--and who abets him in his mission of vengeance. And the second is by Charles Gemora, the man in the gorilla outfit...a Filipino makeup artist and a veteran specialist in portraying these simian brutes (he appeared in any number of films in a gorilla suit, including such well-known pictures as "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Sign of the Cross," "Island of Lost Souls," "Road to Zanzibar" and "Africa Screams"), and who here makes the hulkingly brutish avenger quite credible, right down to the emotion evident in its simian eyes. And the homicide sequences in the film, in which our sympathetic ape crushes the gang members to death one by one, are invariably well shot and suspenseful. Again, the film is never risible, and never descends to the level of camp. Viewers who decide to sit down with this wonderful film expecting a laugh fest, on the order of "Robot Monster" or some other picture of that ilk, will surely be disappointed at what a levelheaded and serious outing this one actually is. And thus, my thanks again to John Landis. This is a film that will surely catch viewers off guard with its combination of mixed genres, its streamlined script, its abundance of fine performances, its beautiful lensing, and its almost tearjerking finale. To my delighted surprise, this one is a genuine winner, indeed!
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4/10
See It For Allison
18 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
8:57 AM (0 minutes ago)

Sometimes, all it takes is one decent, interesting and/or sexy performance to salvage an otherwise lackluster film from complete uselessness. To demonstrate the veracity of this statement, I give you "The Disembodied," a rather silly and borderline confusing voodoo film that is of interest today solely for the performance of its leading lady, Allison Hayes. When "The Disembodied" was first released in August 1957, it was part of a double bill, playing alongside the now legendary "From Hell It Came," now regarded as one of the worst films of all time, its walking tree monster Tabanga a source of jokes and derision for over 60 years now. In retrospect, though, "From Hell It Came" is a fun albeit campy experience, and one that this viewer enjoyed a lot more than he thought he would. It is surely the superior film as compared to "The Disembodied," a film with no monsters, no real scares or suspense, and more plot holes than the proverbial screen door. But that Allison...oh my goodness! Is she ever something here!

At this point in her life, Hayes' career was just starting to take off, and 1957 would prove to be a banner year for the then-27-year-old, West Virginia-born actress. That year, she would also star in such "psychotronic" favorites as "The Unearthly," "The Undead" and "Zombies of Mora Tau"; it wasn't until the following year, though, that Allison attained true cult status, via her title role in the renowned camp classic "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman." Sadly, her cinematic career never really took off, and as her work in "The Disembodied" demonstrates, that is to be regretted, as she really could be quite sexy and effective when given half a chance.

In the film in question, Allison plays a character with the unusual name of Tonda, whose feelings and intentions are plainly spelled out even before the opening credits have stopped rolling. During those credits, we see the sultry brunette strangling a voodoo doll with a string, while her scientist husband, Dr. Metz (John Wengraf), chokes and asphyxiates downstairs. Tired of living alone with the older man in the middle of the steamy jungle, Tonda is doing everything in her power(s) to get out, and her outlook on life becomes suddenly brighter with the advent of three white men, who appear in their jeep one day from out of nowhere. One of them, Joe Lawson (Robert Christopher), has just been mauled to the point of death by a lion (and the fact that he WAS injured by a lion is the only way the viewer has of knowing that we are in the African jungle; no precise locale is ever mentioned, but lions are to be found nowhere else, I believe, right?), and Dr. Metz tells the other two that he will do what he can, although things look rather bleak. Tonda quickly takes a hot-blooded fancy for one of the other two men, Tom Maxwell (surprisingly well played by Paul Burke), who, along with his other filmmaker buddy, Norm Adams (Joel Marston), can only sit around and hope for the best. Later that night, the two men are surprised to come upon a native voodoo ceremony deep in the jungle, at which Tonda herself is seen dancing frenziedly in sarong and halter, later using a dead chicken as part of her eldritch rite. The following day, Joe is miraculously better, and although scarred, seems to have been brought back from the brink of death. But what the men don't know is that one of Dr. Metz' servants had been killed during that jungle rite, and his soul, via the process of metempsychosis, kerplopped into Joe's body, which body is now Tonda's slave! Maxwell is effectively seduced by Tonda's steamy advances (what red-blooded male wouldn't be?), but then rejects her when she tries to get him to murder her husband. Thus, our sexy voodoo queen decides to use other methods to get her way, leading to knifings, long-distance voodoo murders, and other jungle shenanigans....

"The Disembodied" has been directed by Walter Grauman in a relatively styleless manner--he would go on to a career largely in television, his only other major film credit being for the terrific Olivia de Havilland thriller "Lady in a Cage" in 1964--but its major problem is its grossly incompetent script, by one Jack Townley. It is a decidedly lazy piece of writing that is--unlike Ms. Hayes--very inadequately fleshed out. Thus, we never learn about Tonda's background, or her unusual name, or even how she became the local voodoo queen of the nearby natives. And while I'm carping, how it it that Tonda, as adept as she is at the voodoo arts, has not murdered her husband the doctor LONG before the action begins in this film? Simplistic as "The Disembodied" is, it is yet confusing at times as regards those mind/body switches (no wonder my beloved "Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film" calls it "fun jungle nonsense" and a "confusing voodoo feature"), and although it is well acted by its uniformly fine and straight-faced cast, it yet manages to achieve some one-liners of hilarious groanability (my favorite: when Maxwell, listening to the native drums in the distance, says "Seems to be coming from the jungle"!). To its credit, Townley's script DOES make it unclear whether or not Tonda or the doctor is responsible for many of the voodoo happenings early on in the film, but that uncertainty on the viewer's part is sadly short lived. The use of black AND white actors to portray the jungle natives only adds to the risibility factor, while the noninclusion of any stock footage or actual outdoor photography (the entire film was shot on studio sets) only adds to the hermetic and cheapjack feel of the production. Thus, as I say, thank goodness for Allison Hayes, whose every body movement and line reading is either a challenge or a sensual come-on, and who slinks and glides her way through this film in her skintight and formfitting skirts, bodices and capris as if she were in a NYC nightclub, rather than in the heart of the Dark Continent. (SHE, happily, is hardly DISembodied, if you get my drift!) Without her vital presence, "The Disembodied" would surely be a waste of anyone's time, but as it is, the picture is a fun and entertaining 65 minutes that few will regret sitting through. See it with your 12-year-old nephew, who just might enjoy it immensely...AND get his puberty jump-started by watching Ms. Hayes go through her motions!
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Brainstorm (1965)
8/10
The Classic Film Noir Era Goes Out With A Winner
9 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
As I have mentioned elsewhere, it was Anne Francis, via her performance in the 1965 television program "Honey West," who was first responsible for, uh, jump-starting this young viewer's dormant puberty, and the actress has been one of my very favorites ever since. Anne was always a captivating and eye-catching performer--an undersung actress, truly--who unfailingly made any film or TV show better for her participation in it. And while she always had been a beauty--from child model at age 5, to one of her earliest screen appearances, unbilled, as one of the three teenagers at the tail end of 1948's "Portrait of Jennie," and on to her legendary appearance as Altaira in 1956's "Forbidden Planet"--it wasn't until the mid-1960s that her beauty came to full fruition...for this viewer, anyway. Thus, the Anne Francis of 1965 was really something to see, and fortunately, that year would prove to be a banner one for the actress. It was the year that "Honey West" premiered in the fall, and the year in which Anne starred in two very fine big-screen entertainments: "The Satan Bug" and "Brainstorm." I had seen the first of those two many times in the past, but it was not until Warners started to release some vintage films in its DVD Archives Collection that I got a chance to finally see the latter. And, as it turns out, it was well worth the wait. "Brainstorm" (not to be confused with the 1983 film entitled "Brainstorm," which would be Natalie Wood's swan song) has been called the last of the classic B&W film noirs, and I would most surely agree with that description. Very much following the mold of such noirs as "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," but updating them to more modern times, the film holds up very well today, now more than 50 years since its initial release in May '65.

In the film, Jeffrey Hunter (who had starred with Anne in 1952's "Dreamboat" and was also enjoying a good film year in 1965, having just completed the "Star Trek" pilot "The Cage") plays an engineer named Jim Grayam, who works for a large aeronautical concern in California. Grayam comes upon a stalled car on a railroad track near the company building, and sees that a woman has passed out on the front seat, unaware of the train barreling down on her and her car. He rescues the woman and takes her home...the home of his employer, Cort Benson (Dana Andrews, who also appeared with Anne in "The Satan Bug" that year, as well as in "Crack in the World" and "In Harm's Way"). The woman, as it turns out, is Lorrie Benson (our Anne)...a miserably unhappy wife who is appalled that her recent suicide attempt has failed. Despite her anger at Grayam's rescue, she later invites him to one of her scavenger parties, and the two engage upon a lustful affair. But when her husband finds out, he does everything in his power to frame Grayam and make him appear to be losing his mind. Thus, a woman falsely accuses Jim of being a pervert caller; his car is stolen; his lab is wrecked. No dummy, Grayam realizes what is being done to him, and he and Lorrie, in true noir fashion, hatch a clever scheme to do the vicious Cort in. "Only a madman can get away with murder," Jim realizes, and thus he plots to kill Cort in some manner to be later determined, pretend to be insane, get put away in the booby hatch for a year or so, and then emerge a free man. Sounds simple, right? But do these things ever work out as planned?

"Brainstorm," besides boasting three terrific performances by its three leads (Hunter is particularly good here in his starring role), also showcases terrific supporting work by Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors (she'd previously appeared along with Hunter in "King of Kings") as Dr. Larstadt, a psychiatrist who endeavors to determine whether or not Grayam really is insane or not; Richard "Jaws" Kiel as a mental patient; and three more future "Star Trek" alumni: Kathy Browne as that telephone accuser, Phillip Pine as another psychiatrist, and Steve Ihnat as a doctor. William Conrad, future star of TV's "Cannon" and "Jake and the Fatman," here directs his third Warners film of the year (the others being "Two for a Guillotine" and "My Blood Runs Cold") and brings some impressive directorial touches to the fore (the killing of Cort is especially well done and suspenseful); Mann Rubin's screenplay is both sharp and no-nonsense; and Sam Leavitt's B&W lensing is a thing of true film noir beauty. It is a haunting and atmospheric film, really, whose impact should surely linger with the viewer for days after the final scenes unreel. A mash-up of sorts of those earlier film noirs ("Double Indemnity" is especially homaged, never more so than in the scene in which Anne wears those dark shades as she and Jim plot murder in a library...very reminiscent of the shades that Barbara Stanwyck sports in the supermarket scene in the 1944 film) with the disturbing sanatorium scenes in Sam Fuller's 1963 classic "Shock Corridor," "Brainstorm" is a near-forgotten winner that surely does deserve to find a wider audience today. It contains any number of wonderful sequences (I love the one in which Grayam injects himself with truth serum in an effort to build up his immunity), and is never better than in the scenes with Grayam and Dr. Linstadt, during which we are uncertain just what the doctor is thinking, and whether or not Jim is going crazy or just pretending. And Anne? OMG! As I have mentioned, she never looked more gorgeous than in 1965, and this film shows her at the top of her yummy form. Always a flawless actress, she steals every scene that she appears in. But this is Hunter's film all the way, and his performance here is both appealing and affecting. Somehow, the viewer WANTS him to get away with this murder (Dana's Cort character really is a nasty piece of work), and thus the final moments of the film are all the more unforgettable. "The Most Fiendish Idea Ever Conceived by the Human Brain!" the film's promotional poster declared ... a hyperbolic statement concealing an extremely well-done film. Happily, the era of the classic film noir went out with a very fine winner, indeed!
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10/10
Book vs. Film
28 November 2018
There is a word that film buffs like to use to describe a type of motion picture that, because of its tautness and high suspense quotient, almost seems as if it had been directed by the so-called "Master of Suspense" himself, Alfred Hitchcock. The word, naturally enough, is "Hitchcockian," a term that might be fairly applied to such wonderful entertainments as "Gaslight" (both the 1940 and '44 versions), "Charade," "The Prize" and "Arabesque." But of all the pictures that have been honored with the adjective "Hitchcockian" over the years, none, it seems to me, is more deserving than the 1946 RKO film "The Spiral Staircase," and indeed, after 40 years' worth of repeated watches, I have come to deem the picture the greatest horror outing of the 1940s...at least, that wasn't a product of Universal Studios or producer Val Lewton.

Featuring impeccable direction by Robert Siodmak (his close-up shots of the maniac's eyeballs in the film are legendary), who would go on to direct the noir classics "The Killers" and "The Dark Mirror" that same year; sumptuous set design; and spectacularly gorgeous B&W cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who would eventually work on no fewer than five of those Val Lewton horror films, the picture is a genuine classic, beloved by millions. A neo-Gothic suspense thriller starring Dorothy McGuire, giving an almost Oscar-caliber performance despite the fact that she only has three or four lines of dialogue, and abetted by a remarkable supporting cast that is just aces (George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Elsa Lanchester, Rhonda Fleming et al.), the picture has been one of this viewer's personal Top 100 favorites for decades now, and I have long wanted to read its source novel, Welsh author Ethel Lina White's "Some Must Watch." And fortunately, thanks to the fine folks at Arcturus Publishing, a reasonably priced edition can be easily procured today; "fortunately," I say, seeing that the original hardcover seems to now be completely unobtainable, even on the usually dependable Bookfinder website, and the fact that even the 1946 movie tie-in paperback can be a dicey proposition.

White, I should perhaps mention, was a new author for me. Apparently, White began writing somewhat late in life, and her first novel was not released until 1927, when the budding author was already 51. Over the course of 17 years, until her death in 1944, White came out with 17 novels. "Some Must Watch," her sixth, was released in 1933. Her ninth, incidentally, entitled "The Wheel Spins," was released in 1936 and, two years later, adapted as Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes." Ultimately, White would become known as "The Mistress of Macabre Mystery," and I suppose that "Some Must Watch" (an oddly unsatisfying title, for this reader) is a good example of why.

In the book, the reader meets 19-year-old Helen Capel, who has come to the lonely abode known as the Summit, on the Welsh border, to work as a maid in the service of the Warren family. While there, Helen, a diminutive slip of a girl whose small stature is constantly referred to, gets to know the members of this most unusual household: old Lady Warren, a bedridden, cantankerous invalid who is confined to her room upstairs; her stepson, Prof. Warren, an intellectual cold fish; his prissy sister Blanche; his married son Newton; Newton's wife, Simone, who is something of a nymphomaniac; Stephen Rice, who the professor is tutoring and whom Simone has set her sights on; and Mr. and Mrs. Oates, two other house servants. Helen seems happy at her new job, despite the loneliness of the locale, and despite the fact that a series of murders has just transpired in the vicinity. Four young girls have recently been strangled to death by an unknown madman, the last incident having occurred only a few miles from the Summit itself. And now, as a monstrous thunderstorm commences one evening, a fifth young woman is strangled almost on the very doorstep of the Warren residence! "Some Must Watch" takes place during the 12 or so hours following this last murder, as Helen becomes increasingly distraught. One by one, all the residents in the Warren household are rendered unable to assist (the youngsters, caught in their love triangle, take off for the local pub; Mr. Oates is away on an errand; Mrs. Oates is dead drunk; Prof. Warren has taken too many sleeping pills; Blanche is trapped in her room due to a faulty doorknob; the new nurse, Barker, who may or may not be a man, has vanished; Lady Warren is, of course, too infirm to be of aid), until Helen finds herself quite alone, in the middle of a raging storm, with a homicidal lunatic who has somehow found entry into the house....

Longtime fans of Siodmak's 1946 film may be a bit surprised, after reading White's source novel, to discover just how many changes screenwriter Mel Dinelli made while adapting the author's work. For one thing, while the novel is set in contemporary times (in other words, 1933; both "King Kong," which had just been released, and Cecil B. DeMille's 1932 film "The Sign of the Cross" are mentioned), the film takes place a good 30 years earlier (when we first see Helen in the film, she is watching the silent movie "The Kiss," which had been released in 1896), and in New England. The character named Blanche becomes the professor's secretary in the film; the professor has a stepbrother rather than a sister; and Helen herself, as played by the 5'5" McGuire, is hardly as petite as White had described her. But shockingly, the biggest difference between the book and the film is that whereas Helen in the film is a mute, the result of a traumatic shock at a young age, White's Helen is anything but...she's quite the chatterbox, actually! Also, the jealous dynamic between her and Nurse Barker in the novel is excised in the film (Barker, a lonely and unattractive woman, is inordinately envious of Helen being able to enthrall the young Dr. Parry), and the killer's motivation in the motion picture (that is, the reason why he is compelled to kill physically afflicted women) is completely different, as well. Personally, I find the changes that Dinelli made work marvelously, particularly the idea of having Helen being a mute...most especially since it enables the film to deliver some of the most emotionally affecting closing lines in screen history. So yes, this may very well be one of those rare instances in which the cinematic adaptation eclipses the source material, at least in part. But still, White's book does have much to offer.

As might be expected, the book is genuinely suspenseful, and it really is remarkable how the author ratchets up her tension slowly, over the course of 250 pages. Every single chapter ends in cliff-hanger fashion, keeping the reader primed for anything that might ensue. During the course of her long, stormy evening, Helen is placed into what the author somewhere refers to as "perpetual postponement"; that is, "nerved up to meet an attack which did not come, but which lurked just around the corner." The book can fairly be accused of being all buildup, with not enough in the way of payoff, but trust me, although the novel ends a tad abruptly, the threat that Helen girds herself for is a genuine one; a wackadoodle maniac of the first water. My advice would be to not even try to guess the killer's identity (a simpler guessing game in the movie, I will admit, despite the red herrings), but to just put yourself in Helen's place (a remarkably well-written and likable character, I must say) and hang on tight.

As would be expected, "Some Must Watch" is a very British type of novel, employing any number of English expressions ("bally rot," "dripping toast," "one over the eight") and referencing then-popular English entertainers (such as the singer Al Bowlly, as well as bandleader Jack Hylton); yes, using the Interwebs as a recourse here might not be a bad idea. The book is often slyly self-aware, and Helen repeatedly thinks to herself that the situations she finds herself in, such as with the thunderstorm and the cut telephone wires, are like the "faithful accompaniment to the thrill-drama." White, as it turns out, was a very fine writer, especially when it comes to sharp and witty dialogue, but still, a close reading will reveal some unfortunate gaffes on her part. For example, in one late section, Lady Warren refers to Newton as her nephew, whereas he is in actuality her step-grandson. Her late husband is referred to as Sir Roger in some chapters and Sir Robert in others. The author tells us that Helen was "reliant and conscientious" when she obviously meant to say "reliable," and shows herself capable of turning an ungrammatical phrase, such as "Helen crossed to the walnut sideboard, where the glass and silver was kept," instead of "were kept." Still, quibbles aside, some very impressive and highly atmospheric work here.

During the course of her novel, White shows us Stephen trying to forget his troubles and tension "in the excitement of a thrill-novel," only to become aware, presently, that "his attention was no longer gripped." A pity, then, that he did not have a book such as "Some Must Watch" to flip through, a novel that I personally found quite gripping and almost nerve-wracking (and that's a good thing!). As a matter of fact, I enjoyed reading this one so much that I now find myself wanting to take in White's 10th novel, 1937's "The Third Eye," which is supposedly another neo-Gothic thrill ride of sorts. Stay tuned...
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The Outer Limits: Specimen: Unknown (1964)
Season 1, Episode 22
6/10
Puffed Wheats And Agar Dishes
11 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Before sitting down to watch the first-season "Outer Limits" episode "Specimen: Unknown" the other night, for the first time in many years, it suddenly struck me that I remembered virtually nothing from this particular outing. And that was very strange, as I HAD seen the episode several times before, on television, on VHS and on DVD. And yet, all I could recall was that "this is the one with the spore plants," and just about nothing else; surely, NOT a good sign going in. And now that I have refreshed my memory of this episode, it seems clear to me just why my memory had been so hazy regarding this one: There really is nothing much to remember about it, as very little in the way of story or action is provided to the viewer to begin with! "Specimen: Unknown," which debuted on ABC on 2/24/64, was the 22nd offering from the landmark sci-fi anthology show. For me, it was the second episode of a group that seemed to indicate that the program was entering a midseason slump of sort. Whereas episodes #17 - 20--"Don't Open Till Doomsday," "ZZZZZ," "The Invisibles" and "The Bellero Shield"--proved to be some of the most fondly remembered episodes that the program ever gave us, beginning with episode #21, "The Children of Spider County," the show entered into a run of around five episodes that were of a slightly lesser, decidedly middling quality, only to rebound in a very big way with episode #26, "The Guests." And of that lesser bunch, "Specimen: Unknown" just might be the weakest of the lot. (This, by the way, is all subjective and comparative, of course, and episodes such as # 25, "The Mutant," must remain very fine sci-fi in anybody's book.) Still, I was happy to rediscover that even though this particular hour of "The Outer Limits" surely does suffer in comparison to most of the other 32 (!) first-season offerings, it still does offer some fine points to commend itself to the viewer's attention.

In this episode, we encounter some of the crew of Project Adonis, an orbiting space wheel floating 1,000 miles above the Earth. When some mushroomlike growths are discovered clinging to the outside hatch and brought inside, one of the crewmen, Lt. Howard (Dabney Coleman, unrecognizable here sans moustache), experiments on it, placing it in an agar bath and then an incubation chamber, where it sprouts and becomes a pretty-looking, lilylike plant. But upon removing the alien growth from the chamber, Howard is suddenly sprayed by a cloud of spores and what looks to be a mist of sorts from the plant, killing him fairly instantly. Later, it is seen that an artificial tanning lamp also causes the mushroomlike thingies to sprout. But real trouble only comes later, when a group of the Adonis crewmen, returning to Earth after their tour of duty, are struck down by the plant spores and sickened unto death. Back on Earth, the project commander, Col. MacWilliams (Stephen McNally), faces the very tough decision of whether to allow these men to land on Earth and risk contaminating the planet, OR to instruct them to self-destruct while still in space. Ultimately, the returning Adonis crewmen ARE permitted to touch down at a Florida spaceport, but crash-land in a wooded area nearby. And unfortunately, those alien plants very quickly take over the entire area, spewing spores of death all the while. Can anything eradicate this new and frightful menace?

As revealed in David Schow's indispensable reference guide, "The Outer Limits: The Official Companion," it was discovered only after this episode finished shooting that the running time was a scant 45 minutes, thus necessitating padding and numerous insert shots to fill it out to a proper length. And the episode does indeed feel padded, with an extra-long (and surprisingly dull) precredits sequence, endless shots of those darn plants, and an extended interlude during which a crewman takes a space walk to effect repairs. The episode is sloooow moving, to put it mildly, and the so-called "bear" of the hour, those plants, is hardly an intimidating one. The resolution of the crisis at the episode's finale is something of a deus ex machina that comes out of, uh, thin air; credible though it might be, anyone who has seen "The War of the Worlds" might have an inkling as to the nature of the denouement here. The spores that these alien growths emit look just like cereal, and thus I was not at all surprised when Schow revealed that they were indeed Puffed Wheats. Actually, the spores here are pretty darn reminiscent of the ones that would be featured in the Season 1 episode of "Star Trek" entitled "This Side of Paradise." But those plants, to be found on the planet Omicron Ceti III, only caused lethargy and contentment, whereas these attacked the body's hemoglobin and caused death. Visually, however, the spores are pretty much identical. In all honesty, what this episode of "The Outer Limits" brought most forcefully to this viewer's mind was an Italian sci-fi film of the sort helmed by director Antonio Margheriti in the mid-'60s; films such as "Battle of the Worlds" (1961) and "War of the Planets" (1966). In other words, a Grade B sci-fi film, here featuring a lackluster script from Stephen Lord, but fortunately given that wonderful first-season "OL" feel.

And as I mentioned up top, there ARE some saving graces to be had here. As a first-season outing, "Specimen: Unknown" fortunately highlights the talents of director Gerd Oswald (who had previously brought in such fan favorites as "O.B.I.T.," "Corpus Earthling," "It Crawled From the Woodwork," "Don't Open Till Doomsday" and "The Invisibles", and who would go on to direct no fewer than eight more, including the truly remarkable episode "The Forms of Things Unknown"); some more impressive lensing by DOP Conrad Hall, working here in one of his seven "OL" episodes with Oswald (Hall's woodland work here is especially fine); and of course, those telltale musical cues from the late great Dominic Frontiere. The episode also benefits from a group of wonderful acting pros: McNally, an actor who had already appeared in any number of quality '40s and '50s films, including the ubertough film noir "Criss Cross" and the legendary Western "Winchester '73"; Richard Jaeckel, who, four years later, would again face off against an alien menace in an orbiting space station, in the Italian classic "The Green Slime"; Russell Johnson, everybody's favorite egghead castaway; and Arthur Batanides, a familiar TV face of the '60s who will always be the doomed Lt. D'Amato--from the "Star Trek" episode "That Which Survives"--to me. Not to mention Gail Kobe, an actress with whom I was not familiar, playing the worried wife of the Jaeckel character, and who makes the most of her underwritten part. (But then again, ALL the parts here are fairly underwritten.) The episode does boast a few well-done scenes, including the outer space "burial" of Lt. Howard; the shadow of one of those darn flowers that suddenly appears on the helmeted, desiccated face of one of the spacemen once back on Earth; the revelation of a gaggle of the plants growing beneath the hood of the colonel's car; and that final deus ex machina scene, a lovely scene, really, capped by some of the sweetest parting words by the Control Voice. And the episode's central crisis--whether it is wiser to allow the Adonis ship to land or to have it blown up summarily--is fairly well carried off, and the painful decision that MacWilliams is forced to make is an affecting one. Unfortunately, all these combined elements cannot save the episode from the curse of mediocrity, and "Specimen: Unknown," despite being the highest-rated episode that the series would enjoy (!), must yet go down as one of the weakest from an otherwise legendary season....
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7/10
"Boy, What A Trip!"
10 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
If I were to ask a random group of people what their fondest memory is of MGM's classic 1956 sci-fi film "Forbidden Planet," I would, in all likelihood, receive many different responses. For some, it would be that incredible starship, the C-57D, the first faster-than-light craft to be portrayed on film. For others, it would be the ravening Id Monster, snarling and wailing as it comes in contact with a force field barrier. Some other folks would fondly recall the many underground wonders of the dead Krell race that Prof. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) shows to his visiting guests. Still others will fondly recall the picture's all-electronic score--the first such for a motion picture--composed by Bebe and Louis Barron. As for me, the most salient aspect of that landmark film is Altaira Morbius herself, decked out in her famous tan silk minidress dripping with bronze and gold medallions, and indelibly portrayed by Anne Francis in one of her most famous roles (but then again, Anne Francis always stole the show for me in whatever entertainment she appeared in). However, for most people, I have a feeling, the most memorable aspect of "Forbidden Planet" is the butler/helper/guardian that Prof. Morbius tinkered together in his spare time, forever known afterward as Robby the Robot. The first mechanical "man" in film history to evince any sort of a unique personality of its own, Robby was one of the most expensive props ever contrived for a film up to that time. Built by the MGM Art Department at a cost of $125,000 (a huge chunk of the film's near $2 million budget), Robby would prove so very popular that he (I mean "it"; it's hard not to think of Robby as a "he," however) went on to have a career for itself in later years. Indeed, Robby not only appeared in other sci-fi films in the years to come, but also made dozens of appearances in various television programs throughout the '60s. Its very first appearance, however, after scoring big in "Forbidden Planet," was the very next year, in MGM's kiddy sci-fi film "The Invisible Boy." Released in October '57, the film--perhaps on the strength of Robby's return--was a marginal hit, raking in $840,000 at the box office, after a production cost of $384,000.

In the film, the viewer encounters family man and scientific genius Prof. Tom Merinoe (played by Philip Abbott, whose performance I had recently enjoyed in the classic "Outer Limits" episode entitled "ZZZZZ"), who works at the Stoneman Institute of Mathematics. Merinoe, 29 years earlier, had designed and built the world's most advanced computer, which in the present day is the possessor or nearly limitless knowledge. (Oddly enough, the professor does not look nearly old enough to have built anything almost 30 years earlier, and the supercomputer is never given a name, or even, as might be expected, an acronym.) At home, we see that Merinoe also has a pretty wife named Mary (Diane Brewster, who many will recall as Miss Canfield on "Leave It To Beaver") and a cute, freckle-faced son named Timmie (Richard Eyer, who some will remember from his roles in 1955's "The Desperate Hours" and 1956's "Friendly Persuasion"). Timmie, unlike his dad, has little interest in science or in learning, and is a complete dunce when it comes to math. Thus, the professor plunks him down in front of the supercomputer (apparently, it is not a problem to bring one's kid into this most highly protected, underground government installation) and hopes that the machine will be able to teach the kid a thing or two. And boy, does it ever! The computer hypnotizes Timmie and gives him the ability to easily beat his father at chess. He also teaches the lad how to put together the pieces of a robot that have been laying around the government installation. It seems that several years earlier, a retired professor at the Institute had built a time machine (!), traveled to the 23rd century (the period in which "Forbidden Planet" transpires), and brought back these pieces...although nobody seems to give his time travel story much credence. After Timmie puts the robot together with his newly acquired superknowledge, none of the adults in the installation give it a second look or even comment much on the matter. (For the life of me, I couldn't figure this part out!) Timmie brings Robby (for the robot is no less a figure than our old "Forbidden Planet" buddy!) home but soon realizes that the big hulk is not much in the way of fun, its built-in mechanism prohibiting it from endangering humans getting in the way of any roughhousing and hijinks. Timmie thus brings Robby back to the supercomputer, hooks the two together, and has the robot's "Basic Directive" overriden. But what Timmie and Professor Merinoe do not know is that the computer has a secret agenda of its own, and is now able to control Robby to do its bidding. Later, Timmie has Robby build a superkite for himself; a remote control-guided, boxy affair in which Timmie flies high above the ground. He also has Robby change his own "index of refraction," effectively turning him invisible and thus able to torment his parents and take vengeance on the neighborhood bully. But trouble eventually looms, as that pesky supercomputer sets its sights on America's first orbiting spaceship, in its effort to completely take over the Earth....

"The Invisible Boy"'s director, Herman Hoffman, maintains a light tone during the first half of his film and gradually segueways into a more serious feel in its second, as that supercomputer uses Robby to insert metallic control mechanisms into the noggins of the lab officials to effectively turn them into walking puppets. Storywise, the film just barely manages to hang together. I am still a bit unclear as to just how and why the invisible Timmie suddenly appears on that spaceship at the end, and how Robby manages to free himself (darn...I mean "itself") from the evil computer's sway at the film's end. And talk about anticlimaxes! Did I miss something, or was it possible to effectively eliminate the computer's menace (for a short while, anyway) simply by turning its power off? Just with the flick of a switch? Anyway, despite these several issues that I had with the film, "The Invisible Boy" still remains good fun, and is of course a perfect picture to watch with your favorite 8-year-old. Personally, I thought Timmie was a bit on the annoying side, with little in the way of cuteness or redeeming qualities that I could detect. He's more of a brat here, and Eyer's annoying vocal delivery surely doesn't help. But most kids, I have a feeling, will like him and accept him as one of their own. The film does offer one truly awesome moment that even the adults should eat up: the sight of Robby approaching that spaceship and coming up against dozens of armed U.S. troops, who begin to attack it with all the firepower and flamethrowers at their disposal. The supercomputer is also visually impressive, a rather large affair replete with what looks like a disco ball sitting on its top; still, it is not nearly as sinister a contraption as Colossus in "Colossus: The Forbin Project" or as scary a proposition as HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But "The Invisible Boy," again, IS a pleasing affair, a class production from MGM, and a welcome opportunity to say hello again to Robby the Robot. In all, it is a strange little film, but one well worth seeing. Perhaps Timmie, floating in that spaceship in orbit over the Earth, puts it best when he remarks "Boy, what a trip!"
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The Sea Hawk (1940)
10/10
The Greatest Swashbuckler Of Them All....
9 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I have long been a fan of the pictures that Warner Brothers put out in the 1930s and '40s, as well as a longtime fan of Tasmanian-born actor Errol Flynn, of Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, and of the genre of film known as the swashbuckler, so it was perhaps inevitable that 1940's "The Sea Hawk" should wind up on my personal Top 10 list. But it is perhaps strange that I should rank this particular swashbuckler so very high, when so many others have topped it in various departments. Flynn's breakthrough film, the swashbuckler "Captain Blood" (1936), was there first, and features a short but very sweet beachside sword fight between Flynn and Basil Rathbone; "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), also starring Flynn, is one of the most gorgeously filmed Technicolor movies ever made ("The Sea Hawk" was shot in B&W) and also features one of the greatest sword fights in cinema history, that between Flynn and Rathbone at the picture's conclusion; "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) also sports one of the finest sword fights of all time, that between star Tyrone Power and, still again, villainous Basil Rathbone; and "Scaramouche" (1952) gave us what is most likely THE very greatest (and lengthiest) sword fight in film history, a truly acrobatic and swinging affair between star Stewart Granger and villainous Mel Ferrer. (And by the way, I am using the term "sword fight" here generically, with full knowledge that many of these bouts were between two men fencing with rapiers or foils.) But for this viewer, "The Sea Hawk" remains the greatest swashbuckler of them all; a film in which all the elements come together to create one truly rousing and memorable film experience. After having been produced by the Warners studio at a cost of $1.7 million, the picture opened on July 1, 1940 and proved modestly successful at the box office, ultimately raking in $2.6 million. Based on Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel "The Sea Hawk," the picture was actually a remake; the 1924 silent film, which I have also seen and enjoyed, supposedly hews a lot closer to the novel than does the Curtiz production, which uses as its model the exploits of the British sailor Sir Francis Drake. Personally, I have seen the 1940 film several dozen times and never seem to tire of it. I have seen it on both the small screen at home and on the large screen theatrically, and it never fails to leave this viewer with a happy grin on his face by the closing credits. Now almost 80 years old, it would seem to be a film for the ages.

"The Sea Hawk" takes place during the reign of Elizabeth I, a time during which the Spaniards were getting their famous armada together to wage war; in other words, just prior to the year 1588. As the film opens, the Spanish king, Philip II, sends his ambassador Don Alvarez (the always-wonderful character actor Claude Rains) to England, accompanied by his niece, Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall), to convince Elizabeth that Spain has no hostile intentions as regards any of its neighbors. While en route, the ambassador's ship is captured by the Albatross, under the command of privateer Geoffrey Thorpe (our Errol), and Alvarez and his niece are taken prisoners. Back in England, Elizabeth (truly regally portrayed here by Flora Robson, who was 38 at the time and here portraying a monarch who would have been, in 1588, 55 years old) publicly chastises Thorpe for his actions, but privately commends his deeds and valor on behalf of England. Thorpe is later given a rather hazardous assignment: to take his ship to the isthmus of Panama, in the New World, and capture a Spanish gold caravan that will soon be traveling there. And all would have gone well with this mission, had not traitorous Lord Wolfingham (the always hissable Henry Daniell) tipped the Spaniards off in advance. Thorpe and his men are ambushed in the swamps of Panama and many of them are killed; the few who remain are shipped back to Spain, stand trial under the Inquisition, and are sentenced to live out the rest of their lives as galley slaves aboard a Spanish galleon. Can Thorpe and his fellows ever escape from their rowers' shackles, make it back to England, and convince the queen of Spain's real intentions?

"The Sea Hawk" was the 10th film that Curtiz and Flynn collaborated on together, and by now, the team was working like a well-calibrated machine. Besides "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," those previous films had been "The Charge of the Light Brigade"; the Westerns "Dodge City," "Santa Fe Trail" and "Virginia City"; the swashbuckler "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," in which Bette Davis essayed the role of Elizabeth (a very different interpretation of the role as compared to Robson's); and even lighthearted comedies such as "The Perfect Specimen" and "Four's a Crowd." Curtiz really makes his film move here, and nobody, for my money, has ever excelled Flynn in this type of role. The director and actor are abetted by the Warners studio working at peak efficiency, and aided by a raft of wonderful Warners character actors: Alan Hale, Donald Crisp, Una O'Connor, Gilbert Roland, Montagu Love, et al. And perhaps most especially by the great composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose rousing and lusty score for this film, once heard, will never be forgotten. Korngold had previously contributed the scores for "Captain Blood," "Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Private Lives...," but his work here is truly spectacular. Finely shot by DOP Sol Polito, featuring sumptuous sets, and boasting a sparkling screenplay by Howard Koch and Seton I. Miller, "The Sea Hawk" is a class production all around. It is perhaps most famous today for the inspirational speech that Elizabeth makes toward the film's conclusion, in which she forcefully declaims the necessity of a country and her people to fight for their freedom; a speech that was seen as a Hollywood message to our British allies overseas during the early days of WW2. It is a film that really cannot be bettered, I feel...unless it would be to substitute Brenda Marshall with Olivia de Havilland, Flynn's frequent costar. But having a different leading lady play opposite the great Flynn for a change can hardly be seen as a bad thing, and Marshall surely does possess a unique charm of her own.

On a personal note, there is one scene in "The Sea Hawk" that is an especial favorite of mine, and that I think back on frequently. It is the scene in which Thorpe and his men escape from their shackles and take over the Spanish galleon, a truly thrilling sequence indeed. By this time, the English slaves are in a pretty sorry state, dirty and worn out from their incessant, backbreaking toil. They are as abject a lot as can be imagined. But after they capture the ship, and put their Spanish tormentors belowdecks, they turn around and set sail for England, doing the same backbreaking work, but now joyful and singing lustily as can be, the great Korngold theme bellowing from their throats. The same exact work, but under different circumstances. That really strikes a chord with yours truly. As a proofreader and copy editor, I often sit at my office desk and read the most egregiously awful dreck all day long. And come evening, I often go home and...do what? Read! But now I am reading what I want to read, and what a difference it makes! Freedom is the difference, of course; the freedom to be doing what you want to be doing. And that message has never been shown more effectively than in that wonderful scene in "The Sea Hawk."

It has just struck me that I have yet to mention the climactic sword fight that caps the action in this very fine film...that between Flynn and Daniell. While perhaps not as memorable as that of some of the others mentioned above, it is yet a highly satisfying affair, bringing to a close a film that should manage to charm and entertain audiences of all ages. If you have never had the pleasure of seeing this film, I would urge you to put it at the very top of your list. Personally, after not having seen it for a good number of years, I find that I am now hankering for another good solid dose of Geoffrey Thorpe & Co....
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10/10
"Raise 'Em High!"
5 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It is the rare film indeed that is so hard hitting that it actually creates a sea change in real life--be it in social mores, politics or the law--but such a film indeed was 1932's "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," a picture that has been a Top 10 favorite of this viewer ever since I first saw it on television around 40 years ago. Since that time, I have seen it well over a dozen times, including theatrically, and it never fails to wow and impress. Based on the autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, entitled "I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang," the film changes the lead character's name but otherwise hews fairly closely to the facts of the case.

In the film, Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a WW1 vet who, back in civilian life, aspires to become a civil engineer. He tramps around looking for work until he is innocently duped into participating in a robbery at a roadside hamburger stand. After a railroaded kangaroo trial, Allen is sentenced to a 10-year stretch in a Southern chain gang, where he gets to witness firsthand the abominable treatment that the prisoners there are subjected to at the hands of the warden and the sadistic guards. After months of sledgehammer toil under the hot sun, Allen makes his escape and hightails it to Chicago, where he eventually becomes a successful and productive member of society, working as a respected engineer. But trouble soon looms, when his secret is found out by the manipulative Marie (played by the great '30s actress Glenda Farrell), who blackmails him into marriage. That marriage is as happy as might be imagined, until Allen cannot stand it anymore, and after meeting the sweet and kindly Helen (Helen Vinson), demands his freedom from the shrewish Marie, who promptly turns him in to the authorities. Allen, now an undeniably reformed citizen, is given an offer by those authorities: go back to the chain gang and serve out a token term in exchange for a full pardon. But once back on the brutal chain gang, Allen learns that he might just be back there for good, and realizes that another escape might be his only way out....

A bit of personal history here: It has been a good 20 years since I have seen this particular film, the earliest film on my Top 10 list, chronologically, and I DO need to see it again, and soon. But the last time I saw it, back in the mid-'90s, was a memorable viewing. At the time, I was working at a NYC ad agency and was kind of sweet on a fellow coworker there, a very pretty lady named Cynthia. Cynthia, by the way, was a lesbian who happened to have a boyfriend; a very tough nut to crack, I'm sure you will agree. (Boy, do I know how to pick 'em!) After work one night, I took her to a viewing of "I Am a Fugitive" at one of NYC's many revival houses; if memory serves, it was the (now long defunct) Thalia Soho. Cynthia was not overly enthused with my choice of film for the evening, but as the picture progressed, I could tell that she was really getting into it; indeed, by the film's end, she was literally on the edge of her seat. And who could blame her? The film is as tense, as brutal, as exciting and, often, as thrilling as can be, and Allen's two escape attempts from the chain gang constitute some of the most gripping moments in 1930s cinema.

"I Am a Fugitive" was directed by Mervyn Le Roy, shortly before he went on to helm the truly wonderful '30s musical "Gold Diggers of '33," and his work here, as might be expected, is just terrific. And that Paul Muni! My goodness, what a fantastic bit of thesping he offers to his audience in this film! Muni, it seems, met and discussed the role of James Allen with Robert Elliott Burns prior to the film's shooting, in an effort to re-create the real-life man as closely as possible, and his work here is simply aces. Deservedly nominated for an Academy Award that year, Muni ultimately "lost" to Charles Laughton for his work in "The Private Lives of Henry VIII," and I for one think that Muni was robbed (he WOULD get that Oscar three years later for his work in "The Story of Louis Pasteur"). As mentioned above, after the November 10, 1932 release of "I Am a Fugitive," the public was awakened to the full horror of the chain-gang system, and reforms were called for and later implemented. There would be an endless number of films to come that decade depicting convicts and their life in various penitentiaries and criminal institutions, but few films before or since were as scathing in their indictment of the modern-day penal system as Le Roy's was in 1932. Capped by one of the most famous lines in cinema history, "I Am a Fugitive" is doubtless as powerful a cinema experience today as when it was first released 85 years ago. And, oh...trust me: You will never get that haunting chain-gang work song out of your head!
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10/10
For He's A Jolly Good Fellow, Indeed!
28 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It was perhaps inevitable that Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" should find itself on the list of my personal Top 10 Favorite Films. The director himself appears no fewer than five times on my list of Top 100 Favorite Films, more than any other director (with the exception of Billy Wilder), those films being "It Happened One Night" (1934), "Deeds," "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and, of course, the perennial favorite "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). The male lead of "Mr. Deeds," Gary Cooper, appears four times in my Top 100 Films list, not only in "Deeds," but also in "The Plainsman" (1936), "Sergeant York" (1941) and "High Noon" (1952). And as for the female lead in "Mr. Deeds," why, it is Jean Arthur, my favorite comedienne of the '30s and '40s, who, with her adorably cracked voice and clean-scrubbed good looks, appears more than any other actress in my Top 100: not only in "Mr. Deeds," "Mr. Smith," "The Plainsman" and "You Can't Take It With You," but also in Billy Wilder's wonderful 1948 offering "A Foreign Affair," as well as in George Stevens' classic 1953 Western "Shane," which would be Arthur's final film. Anyway, as I say, with all those favorite talents both behind and in front of the camera, perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that I would love "Mr. Deeds," and such is surely the case. The film has been a personal favorite of this viewer for almost 40 years now, ever since I first saw it on television back in the mid-'70s. Since that time, I have seen it repeatedly on VHS, DVD and the big screen, and the film never fails to both charm and elicit big laughs. For me, it is Capra's finest piece of work, in a career filled with so many gems.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the story line of this wonderful picture (and it is a pretty complex one, with multiple plot threads that I will endeavor to summarize in a nutshell), it introduces us to a very special inhabitant of (the fictitious small town of) Mandrake Falls, Vermont. He is Longfellow Deeds (Cooper), an amateur tuba player (whose favorite melody to toot out is apparently "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," which becomes the theme song of the film) and greeting-card writer, who, to his vast amazement, is made the heir of $20 million by a deceased uncle. Deeds, after inheriting this enormous windfall, is brought to NYC and is subjected by various interests to all manner of pressures. Distant relatives crawl out of the woodwork, hoping for a share of the loot, while a large newspaper sends reporter "Babe" Bennett (Arthur) to get the scoop on what makes Deeds tick. Pretending to be a destitute and homeless woman named Mary Dawson, Babe works her way into Deeds' confidence, meanwhile writing a series of articles mocking his eccentric ways (such as jumping on a speeding fire truck for a ride) and dubbing him the "Cinderella Man." The innocent Deeds quickly falls in love with Mary (who wouldn't?), and is fairly devastated when he eventually learns the truth about her. Ultimately, he decides to give all his money away to the poor and needy, in the form of 10-acre farm plots that the destitute will tend for a period of three years, after which the land will be theirs. This, naturally, causes an outrage amongst the various interested parties, resulting in a courtroom hearing to determine Deeds' very sanity. Sunk in despair over both Mary and this disheartening turn of events, Deeds cannot even offer a word in his own defense, but ultimately does manage to rally and rise to the occasion....

"Mr. Deeds," surprisingly enough, was only a moderate box office success after its initial release in April 1936, although it did garner several Oscar nominations and did manage to cop Capra his second Academy Award for Best Director. The film was nominated for Best Picture, ultimately losing to "The Great Ziegfeld" (highway robbery, sez me), and Cooper was nominated for the first of five times as well, losing to Paul Muni's performance in "The Story of Louis Pasteur" (still haven't seen that one, so I cannot comment on whether or not Cooper was robbed or not). It is difficult to say just why the film was not more profitable at the time, although today it is deemed something of a comedy classic, even generating a 2002 remake starring Adam Sandler. (Nope, haven't seen it, and don't need to.) It certainly was not due to a lack of star power, as Cooper and Arthur were both never better than they are here. Arthur plays almost two separate roles in the film: the "sweet and innocent" Mary, as well as the tough-as-nails reporter. She is absolutely wonderful, and it is very hard to imagine the part being played by Carole Lombard, as great a comedienne as SHE was; Lombard was the intended actress for the role, but dropped out to appear in the equally classic '30s comedy "My Man Godfrey." And Cooper is just as ingratiating as can be, with his handsome Montana looks, sweet and gentle demeanor, and soft-spoken vocal delivery. How wonderful he is in the scene in which he gives a recently dispossessed farmer a meal in his palatial digs, and first gets the idea to help the impoverished with his vast fortune! This is a film that plays into what must be a very common fantasy for all of us: What would I do if I ever won a fortune in money? Would I spend it all on myself, give it all away to charity, lavish it on my friends, or what? As this film shows us, being charitable with a huge sum of money is not so simple a proposition as it initially appears.

"Deeds" also boasts a truly winning script from Robert Riskin, the screenwriter who collaborated with Capra on so many winning films over the course of three decades: "Lady for a Day" (1933), "It Happened One Night," "Broadway Bill" (1934), "Lost Horizon" (1937), "You Can't Take It With You," "Meet John Doe" (1941, and featuring still another wonderful Cooper performance), and finally, "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961)...not to mention another of my personal favorite films of the 1930s, "The Whole Town's Talking," which Riskin penned for John Ford; a film starring the great Edward G. Robinson in a double role, as well as Jean Arthur in her breakthrough. The film manages to deliver any number of wonderful scenes, the most touching of which being the one in which Longfellow Deeds reads a love poem that he has written to Mary, and then abruptly runs away in embarrassment, knocking over a garbage can in the process; the funniest of which perhaps being that lengthy sanity hearing, in which two very eccentric biddies from Mandrake Falls give evidence to support the notion that Deeds truly is what they call "pixilated." The picture features a raft of wonderful supporting players who add immeasurably in putting the whole conceit over, including the ubiquitous Charles Lane as a seedy lawyer; the dependably hissable Douglas Dumbrille, who has rarely been better, here as Cedar, the manipulative attorney of Deeds' late uncle; gravel-voiced Lionel Stander, as the person who is picked by Cedar to chaperone Deeds around and keep him out of trouble in the big city (good luck with that!); and Mayo Methot (who would go on to be Mrs. Humphrey Bogart from 1938 - '45), here playing a grasping relative of Longfellow, and the person who starts the ball rolling on his sanity hearing. But the bottom line is that the qualities that truly put "Mr. Deeds" over are charm, sweetness and big laughs in abundance. Some may refer to it using the old and cliched put-down "Capra-corn," but for this viewer, it is a genuine crowd-pleaser that is well near impossible to resist. "It Happened One Night" might have won more Oscars, and "It's a Wonderful Life" might be the fan favorite in this modern-day 21st century, but for me, "Mr. Deeds" is still at the head of the pack. For he's a jolly good fellow, indeed!
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Easy Rider (1969)
10/10
"Far Out, Man!"
27 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
As of this writing, I have never had the good fortune to visit the city of New Orleans, although I sure do hope to do so one day. But unlike most people who visit the Big Easy, it is not the French Quarter that I most want to see, or even the Mardi Gras celebration. Rather (and I hope I'm not sounding too ghoulish here), it is the burial ground known as St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 that is tops on my list of places to see when I get there. "But why," you may rightfully ask, "would you want to go THERE, of all places?" Well, it was at this famous burial ground, New Orleans' oldest, that one of this viewer's favorite scenes, in one of his Top 10 Favorite Films, was shot. The film was "Easy Rider," and the cemetery was the location where the famous "bad trip" sequence was shot back in 1968...179 years after the cemetery's opening, in 1789. More on this in a moment.

First, some personal background history: The summer of 1969 saw two cultural events transpire that were to have long-term seismic significance. We all know of the Woodstock festival that went down in August of that year, but the previous month gave birth to a cinematic event that was almost as far reaching in effect. That event was the premiere of "Easy Rider" on July 14. Now, when July 14 rolled around I was just 15 years old, living with my parents and sister (natch), had never attended a rock concert and had never taken a single puff of the "devil weed." As for those last two items, that would all change a week later in the case of the first, when I saw my first concert on July 21 (Led Zeppelin and B.B. King, if you're interested), and a month later in the case of the second, when I smoked my first joint in mid-August, while watching televised footage of the Woodstock event. But I did hang out with a bunch of guys who were heavily into rock music and were just beginning to dabble with drugs, and when "Easy Rider" opened in mid-July, I went with my best buds Dave, Jeff and Stephen to the Queens Theater (in Queens Village, Queens, NYC), to see this much-ballyhooed event. (Of my personal Top 10 Favorite Films, only "You Only Live Twice" and "Easy Rider" were seen by me theatrically when they first opened.) None of us, as I recall, did any smokeables that day (as I said, I was not into that stuff...yet), but for some reason, Stephen decided that he wanted to drop a hit of acid before watching the movie. Well do I recall how excited he was when he swallowed that teensy orange pill, and how he almost freaked out with glee as the Steppenwolf theme song for the film, "Born To Be Wild," started to blare on the soundtrack. "It's perfect," Stephen shouted over and over with joy. "It's absolutely perfect!" And indeed it was...an absolutely splendid choice of music to kick-start a film that has been a favorite of this viewer for almost half a century since its opening. The film just blew us all away that afternoon in 1969, and for good reason.

"Easy Rider," as it turned out, was something of a surprise sensation that managed to shake up the establishment Hollywood film community. An independent venture, it was produced (by star Peter Fonda) at a cost of something like $400,000 and went on to bring in a whopping $60 million at the box office; an enormously profitable film, and one that virtually came out of nowhere, jump-starting dozens of other similar youth-oriented film projects. We all know the story line by now, I would imagine: How two bikers named Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (played by Dennis Hopper, who also directed the film) cash in big after a cocaine-smuggling deal (their connection is played by no less a figure than Phil Spector) and decide to drop out, tour the country on their Harleys, and make it down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. During the course of their journey, the two visit a poor Mexican family on their farm; have a pleasant sojourn at a hippie commune (where they go skinny-dipping with two communers, played by Luana Anders and Sabrina "Miramanee" Scharf); are arrested for "parading without a license" in a small town and are subsequently jailed; befriend alcoholic ACLU lawyer George Hanson (played by Jack Nicholson, in his breakthrough role, and in a part that had originally been meant for Rip Torn); visit a brothel in New Orleans; and take a very bad acid trip at that cemetery, along with two prostitutes, played by Toni Basil and Karen Black. Along the way, the two are witness to both the beauties of the U.S.A. (both its kindly people and its spectacular scenery) and its ugly side, as personified by the rednecks of the Deep South, with their intolerance and violent tendencies. Wyatt and Billy (a reference to Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, and a nod to the great Western films that Peter's father, Henry Fonda, helped to popularize) manage to have one helluva time as they make their way across the country...before their eventual downfall, that is.

For a film that was largely improvised as it was shot, "Easy Rider" offers the viewer so very much to love today. Its script, written by Fonda & Hopper and Terry Southern (although it it likely that Southern was in the main responsible), although put together on the fly, remains a terrific one, with quotable line after quotable line for the ages. Its soundtrack, besides that Steppenwolf opener, is likewise aces, featuring such talents as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, The Band, and Roger McGuinn. The cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs is simply gorgeous to look at (America has rarely looked more travelogue lovely), and the picture gives the viewer scene after scene after scene that are guaranteed to stick in the memory. And oh, that "bad trip" sequence! It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, a bona fide psychedelic freakout segment that turns out to be an infinitely more convincing cinematic depiction of the acid experience than the one given to audiences in the 1967 film "The Trip" (a film that had been written by Nicholson and that starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in their first teaming). Visually and aurally, it is an amazing experience that should go far in scaring any viewer away from ever trying the hallucinogen known as LSD. But one of this viewer's very favorite moments in "Easy Rider" comes early in the film, before the credits even roll. Wyatt and Billy have just made their big coke deal and have stashed their cash in the gas tank of Wyatt's chopper. Wyatt takes off his wristwatch, gives it one final look, and gently places it on the highway. He will never need it again; he has no more time pressures, no need to ever look at a clock again. He has all the time in the world...or so he thinks. The money he has just made will last him the rest of his life...and, ironically and tragically enough, so it does. I have always wondered if I myself will ever reach a moment in my life when I am able to remove my wristwatch and feel that I never need to look at it again. When I retire, perhaps? I somehow doubt it. But if I may add one more reason to love "Easy Rider"--and it was probably the main reason that we all loved it so much back in 1969--it is the absolutely winning performance by Jack Nicholson here. Although he doesn't make his appearance until the film his halfway over, and disappears well before the film is done, he easily steals the picture, and he is the heart and soul of it. His campfire speech, the one in which he tells Wyatt and Billy, while smoking his first joint, that "this used to be one hell of a country," is a wonderful one, and his words resonate even more today, almost 50 years later. Come to think of it, "Easy Rider" is a film that just might be ripe for a modern-day remake, as two free spirits take a ride through Trumpian America. It could be a very eye-opening experience, if done correctly, although I doubt that it will seem as fresh and exciting as this film was for so many of us back in 1969. Although perhaps a tad dated today, "Easy Rider" is a perfect time capsule of its era, and one that this old fan views with a great deal of nostalgic love and admiration. It really is "far out, man!"
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10/10
THE BEST DINOSAUR MOVIE EVER MADE (SOME MORE WORDS ON THE SUBJECT)
26 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
As I have mentioned elsewhere, it is a keynote of all the films that appear on my personal Top 100 Films list that they are capable of bearing up under repeated viewings with undiminished enjoyment. And indeed, of those 100 films, many of them have been seen by yours truly dozens of times, if not more, with just as much pleasure as when I saw each picture for the very first time. But of all those films, the one that I have probably sat down with the most is "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms."

A bit of personal history here: When I was a kid, growing up in 1960s NYC, we only had perhaps a half dozen television stations to choose from. There were the big three, of course--CBS, NBC and ABC--in addition to two or three local stations, one of which was WOR, channel 9. As memory serves, WOR only had a single program that it showed repeatedly, all week long; a little something called "The Million Dollar Movie." Thus, what the station would do is select a film and play it over and over and over, all day long, for an entire week! Thus, if you happened to find a movie that you really liked a lot, you could conceivably watch it up to 30 or 40 times a week...which is precisely what this viewer tried to do, when it came to such films as "Hercules" (1958), "House on Haunted Hill" (1959) and yes, "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms." As a kid, this last item was a particular favorite. Back then, I loved the fact that we didn't have to wait too long to see the monster in this film; it appears within the first 10 minutes and makes regular appearances thereafter. The film was a knockout for me back in the '60s, and it remains so to this day. I have now seen this picture not only on television, but on VHS, DVD and in the theater--many multiple times for each--and it never fails to awe. When seen theatrically, the film is always greeted with cheers whenever the Beast theme begins during the opening whirlpool credits. The Warner Bros. movie is well loved and remembered for good reason: It's the best in its class. This is, quite simply, the finest dinosaur-on-the-loose movie ever made; I would say "finest monster-on-the-loose movie ever made" if it weren't for that King Kong fella (need I even mention which version?). The picture is a true classic; the inspiration for the Japanese "Gojira" film the following year and all the other thawed-out creatures that followed. It is one of the true champs of 1950s sci-fi (one of my favorite film genres, by the way) and the granddaddy of the "radioactive-creature-on-the-loose" movie, leading to such films as "Them!" (1954, and another Warner Bros. hit), "Tarantula" (1955), "The Monster That Challenged the World," "The Deadly Mantis" and "Beginning of the End" (all from 1957) and so many others. It is, to be succinct, a seminal film.

"The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" was initially released on June 13, 1953. Not surprisingly, it was a smash hit, bringing in around $5 million at the box office after having been put together for a mere $200,000 (not a "million dollar movie" by quite a long shot!). Based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, "The Fog Horn," which first appeared in a 1951 issue of "The Saturday Evening Post," the film was helmed by former art director/set decorator Eugene Lourie, who would go on--after this, his first film as a director--to bring in such lesser (although still terrific) baby-boomer dinosaur favorites as "The Giant Behemoth" (1959) and "Gorgo" (1961). As most of us know by now, the film opens in the desolate Arctic, where an A bomb test is being conducted. After the test is successfully carried out, Prof. Tom Nesbitt (appealingly played by Swiss actor Paul Christian, who sometimes went by the name Paul Hubschmid) goes to the blast area, Geiger counter in hand, to check on the results, only to discover that an enormous prehistoric monster, the (fictional) rhedosaurus, has been released by the explosion. The Beast promptly causes an avalanche of ice and snow to descend upon him, nearly killing the amazed professor. Back in the U.S., Nesbitt tries his darnedest to make the authorities believe what he has seen...with the expected results. Finally, in exasperation, he approaches one of the world's foremost paleontologists, Dr. Thurgood Elson (played with twinkly charm by the great character actor Cecil Kellaway), who works in (what I have always assumed to be) the Museum of Natural History, along with his pretty assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond). But even Dr. Elson is dubious about his claim, until the evidence begins to mount up, as the Beast slowly makes its way from the Arctic, on down the north Atlantic, and finally, into the heart of NYC.

There are so many outstanding set pieces in this wonderful film that it is difficult to know where to begin, but the Beast's attack on the lighthouse, beautifully done in silhouette, is surely one of them; a veritable work of cinematic art. Other remarkable sequences include the sighting of the Beast from a bathysphere (by the way, it took me many decades to figure this out, but the word that Dr. Elson uses, right before his demise in that bathysphere, is "cantileveric"); the Beast's attack on lower Manhattan (surely one of the most exciting sequences in the history of the sci-fi film); and the grand finale at what is supposed to be the Coney Island roller coaster, although this segment was in truth filmed in Long Beach, California (few moments in sci-fi are as thrilling as when sharpshooter Corporal Stone, played by the young Lee van Cleef, sights the gaping wound in the Beast's neck and fires a radioactive-isotope harpoon into it!). The music in the film (by one David Buttolph), the acting by one and all, and the noirish B&W photography are all first rate, and the script--cowritten by Lourie, Fred Freiberger, Louis Morheim and Robert Smith--is an intelligent one, moving along briskly and with purpose (the film clocks in at a superefficient 80 minutes).

But it is the Beast itself that is the star of this show, and for good reason. Brought to immortal life by the great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, here in control of his very first project, this is one monster that actually looks intimidatingly frightening, moves realistically, and has seeming life and personality. How horrifying it is when the Beast breaks the so-called "fourth wall" by looking directly into the camera and curling its upper lip in a malevolent sneer! Harryhausen had been mentored by no less a figure than Willis "King Kong" O'Brien, and had assisted him with the special effects in the 1949 film "Mighty Joe Young," but it was on "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" that Harryhausen was given full charge of technical effects for the first time, and his work here is among his very best. Harryhausen would of course go on to have a near-legendary career, and his "Dynamation" effects would figure largely in such beloved favorites as "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956),"The Black Scorpion" and "20 Million Years to Earth" (both from 1957), "Mysterious Island" (1961), "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963, and featuring that mind-boggling skeleton army!!!) and "Clash of the Titans" (1981), but I don't believe he ever bettered his work than in this, his first film as effects supervisor. To be sure, the look of the Beast is very realistic, and is one of Harryhausen's greatest creations. Every moment that the rhedosaurus is on screen is absolutely riveting, and not even the ILM crew working on the "Jurassic Park" films has ever made a prehistoric monster come to life more realistically. Truly a film for the ages, "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" is the perfect movie to watch with your favorite 8-year-old nephew, or to just enjoy for the 60th time by yourself. As for me, I can't wait to see it yet again. It's just THAT good....
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King Kong (1933)
10/10
Long Live The King!
25 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Of all the titles that appear on my personal Top 10 Films list, this is the one that I have a feeling every single person who is reading this has already seen. For we baby boomers, this is a film that has always been with us. We've seen it over and over on television, and many of us, including myself, have seen it over and over on the big screen. It has been an acknowledged classic ever since it first premiered in NYC on March 2, 1933, and has been wowing successive generations of film viewers ever since. Not surprisingly, the film was a smash hit when initially released, garnering almost $10 million at the box office (huge money, back when) after being put together for around $670,000. It is a film that is so very ubiquitous that at this point it might be taken for granted. But this viewer has never taken this movie for granted, and indeed, to this day, and after more viewings than it is possible to estimate, I still deem the original "King Kong" not only the greatest monster movie of all time, but possibly the greatest adventure film that the silver screen has ever given us.

We all know the story by heart; it is ingrained into us, practically part of our DNA; the story of how film director Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong with a whole lotta energy) acquires a map of the legendary Skull Island, somewhere off the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, and decides to make one of his adventure movies there. After putting together a crew of toughs, he and his first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), and Capt. Englehorn (Frank Reicher), are all ready to set sail aboard their steamer, the S.S. Venture, but only one thing is missing: a leading lady. After doing a quick search through the streets of Depression-era Manhattan, Denham finds THE perfect lead for his picture when he spots beautiful blonde Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, in the role that made her an eternal legend) filching an apple from a street vendor. The first half hour of "King Kong," in all fairness, may be justly accused of being a little on the slow side, as the steamer makes its way around the world to Skull Island, and Driscoll becomes entranced with the blonde beauty. (His drawled line "Say, I think I LOVE you" is something of a classic, and one that my old work buddy Rick used to like to imitate.) But once the crew arrives at the steamy, primordial hellhole that is Skull Island, the picture really takes off, and never stops delivering back-to-back thrills for the duration of its length. We all know what comes next: the initial meeting with the Skull Island natives and their chief (Noble Johnson), one of the most fearsome-looking South Seas islanders in film history; the kidnapping of Ann from off the ship; her intended sacrifice to the legend that is Kong, a creature whom the natives worship; the initial reveal of King Kong himself, one of the most awesome moments in cinema; Denham and Driscoll's pursuit of Kong into the dinosaur-infested island interior; the brontosaurus attack on the crew; Kong's fight with the T. rex (possibly the greatest dukeout in movies), the giant snake and the pterodactyl; Ann's rescue by Driscoll and their looooong plunge off of Kong's mountain perch and into the water below; Kong's maniacal attack on the native village (the most violent bits--such as Kong crushing a native beneath his giant ape foot, and chewing a native between his humongous teeth--of which we never saw as kids, and which were only reinserted decades later for theatrical viewing); Denham's gassing of the giant ape and bringing him back to NYC to put on display; Kong's escape from his shackles and the resultant rampage through the streets of Manhattan; and finally, the now legendary finale atop the Empire State Building. As I say, we have been watching these classic scenes since we were kiddies, and think we know this film backward and forward. However, if you have never had the pleasure of watching this film on the big screen, I enthusiastically urge you to do so, as the film is so replete with little details, especially in the island segment, that many of them will surely be lost on the small screen at home.

There is SO very much to love about this legendary picture, but the two elements that surely work the hardest to make it an eternal joy are the absolutely first-rate stop-motion effects by Willis O'Brien (who had already impressed audiences with his effects in the 1925 silent marvel "The Lost World," and who would go on to amaze filmgoers via his work in 1949's "Mighty Joe Young") that make Kong a living, breathing and feeling character--his love and affection for the little blonde doll that is Ann Darrow are always made manifestly clear--and the thrilling and pounding score by Max Steiner. Direction by Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack is similarly first rate (director Schoedsack, as well as Steiner and Wray, also collaborated on another film at the same time as "Kong," called "The Most Dangerous Game," and it is, perhaps not surprisingly, another of my personal Top 100 Films). The picture's script, by James Creelman and Ruth Rose, is exciting and at times witty (the line about there being enough big apes already in NYC always gets a huge laugh when seen theatrically), and the film's final line--"It was beauty killed the beast"--is surely one of the most memorable final lines ever. Truly, the film is a bona fide classic in every sense of the word.

A bit of personal history here: I had seen "King Kong" both at home and on the large screen many times before March 2, 2008, when my beloved Film Forum in NYC showed the picture on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. It was a memorable screening for the sold-out crowd, and made even more special for me by a Film Forum memory that I had from a few years before. Fay Wray, as it happened, was a member of Film Forum herself, and would often be seen in the audience when one of her old pictures was shown. In 2004, the woman was pushing 96 but still made occasional appearances in the audience there. So one day that year, and shortly before her passing, she was in the audience for a screening of her early talkie "Thunderbolt" (1929), in which she plays a character named Ritzy. As always, after the movie was over, the Film Forum audience would mob her to shake her hand or converse with the living legend, but I never did. My attitude was always: Leave the poor woman alone. She's old and is probably overwhelmed by the crowd surrounding her. On this occasion, the same thing happened, and as Fay was besieged by the FF audience, I made my way to the men's room, preparatory to leaving. But on reemerging into the theater lobby, who should I bump into, squarely face to face (well, not quite face to face; Fay was a good eight inches shorter than I am), but Fay herself. Feeling that I ought to say SOMETHING to her, I knelt down, wagged a finger at her and said "Nice work, Ritzy!" She appeared confused for a moment, but then let out a cackle so loud that the entire lobby could hear it. That line really tickled her, somehow. Anyway, when she passed away a short while later, I felt glad that I had been able to give this legendary actress a laugh during her final days, and when I saw "Kong" on its anniversary four years later, was happy to see Fay Wray on the big screen as we will always remember her: blonde, beautiful and gutsy. Of all the actors and actresses who appear in my Top 100 Films list, she is one of the very few who I ever got to actually meet and greet (not counting the time when I was at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and backed into a group of people...that turned out to be the Odd Couple themselves, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, standing next to Monte Hall, of all people!). Anyway, the bottom line here is that "King Kong," currently in its 85th year of wowing audiences, is not a film to be taken for granted. If you don't believe me, and think you've seen it enough, just try sitting down in front of it the next time it plays (hopefully, at your local revival theater), and you'll soon find yourself getting irresistibly drawn in. And by the way, no comment on the 1976 and 2005 remakes. The original King Kong still rules!
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Psycho (1960)
10/10
The Modern Horror Era Begins
21 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It is not every filmmaker who can manage the difficult trick of coming up with four consecutive masterpieces, but that is just what British director Alfred Hitchcock was able to do as the late 1950s segued into the '60s. His 1958 offering, "Vertigo," took time to find its audience but today is recognized by the British Film Institute's "Sight and Sound" magazine as the single greatest motion picture ever made; 1959's "North by Northwest" is surely one of the all-time great entertainments; 1960's "Psycho" practically jump-started the modern-day horror industry all on its own, and remains the director's most well-known film; and 1963's "The Birds" is still a baby-boomer favorite to this day. But of those four films, all of which reside on my personal Top 100 Favorite Films list, it is the third, "Psycho," that remains my favorite after all these years, and indeed, I personally feel it is the greatest bit of work that the so-called "Master of Suspense" ever gave to an unprepared world. The film was a far cry from its predecessor, "North by Northwest," a big-budget movie that had been shot in lavish wide-screen VistaVision and Technicolor and featured a sweeping, transcontinental story, replete with action and comedy and Cary Grant at his suavest. By contrast, "Psycho" was filmed on the cheap, utilizing Hitchcock's crew from his television program "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"; the entire production was completed in just a few months at a cost of a mere $800,000 or so. But such was the power of the film, and its clever advertising and promotional gimmickry that insisted that no audience member would be allowed admission after the picture had started, that the box office for "Psycho" was enormous: around $50 million, a smashing amount of money for the time. And did it ever deserve it!

I generally try to not include spoilers in these little minireviews of mine, but in the case of "Psycho," I will go on the assumption that everyone knows the big reveal that comes at the picture's end, while at the same time endeavoring to be a bit coy, for the sake of those poor unfortunates who have NOT seen this masterpiece. As most of the world seems to know by now, or should, the film shows up what happens when a pretty secretary, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, in perhaps her finest hour), who works in a Phoenix real estate office, absconds with $40,000 of the company's money and hightails it by car to meet her lover, Sam Loomis (future U.S. ambassador to Mexico John Gavin) in California. Forced to take refuge during a sudden downpour, she stops for the night at the lonely Bates Motel, meets its gawky and awkward proprietor, Norman Bates (Tony Perkins, in the role that made him a star), and is later knifed to death--apparently by Norman's mother--while taking a shower in her room. (This, by the way, was not the first film to depict a woman being attacked while in the shower; indeed, just two years earlier, in the film noir "Screaming Mimi," Anita Ekberg had been attacked in a similar manner, but the difference was, hers was an outdoor shower, with somewhere to escape to, and she was NOT killed during the attack.) Worried by her sister's disappearance, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) arranges to go with Sam to investigate. The two hire a private detective, Milton Arbogast (the great character actor Martin Balsam), to help in their investigations, and the trio eventually tracks Marion's disappearance to the motel, where they discover the grisly secrets that it hides.

A bit of personal history here...and I may be revealing my age a bit by doing so. I am old enough to remember when "Psycho" was first released, in June of 1960, although I was just a wee lad at the time. I remember seeing the trailer for the film in a theater, although I did not realize until many years later, when I saw the trailer again as an adult, what it had been. And I remember the effect that this film had on many of the grown-ups in my neighborhood, particularly on one woman, Tika, who would not take a shower again for many months after she first saw it. The picture, of course, was a genuine shocker for film audiences of the era. Never before had a movie star of the magnitude of Janet Leigh been so suddenly killed off...and just 40 minutes into the picture! Today, naturally, anything goes, and any star can be unceremoniously knocked off in any manner. We've pretty much seen it all at this point, what with the advent of slasher flicks and torture porn films, but back in 1960, this kind of thing was brand new. People today just cannot imagine how shocked and stunned the 1960 audiences were at the time; what a sensation this film was. The word of mouth was terrific, leading to the box office figures mentioned above. As a youngster, I took all this in but of course was not allowed to see the film by my parents. It wasn't until I was in my very early teens that "Psycho" was first shown on television, and by then, I was more than primed. Thus, having been dared by some friends that I would not have the courage to ever see this film alone, I sat down to do so one night. My parents and sister, for some reason, were not in the house, and I manfully plunked myself down on the floor and watched this celebrated horror legend on my ownsome. After all, I figured, I'd already seen 1959's "House on Haunted Hill" any number of times (a good preparation, as it turned out!), and how much scarier than THAT could this picture be? Well, the shower scene of course frightened me, as did the shocking murder of Arbogast on the stairs (one of Hitchcock's greatest set pieces), but it was the final revelation of Mrs. Bates in that damp and musty fruit cellar that really got under my skin. Still, I made it to the end, and breathed a huge sigh of relief; I had made it all the way through, and had something to discuss with my friends. In the intervening 50 years or so, I have watched "Psycho" God knows how many more times on both the big screen and small, and it never seems to get old for me. (That, by the way, is the hallmark of all of my Top 100 films; the fact that I can watch them over and over and over with undiminished enjoyment.)

Today, "Psycho" manages to hold up very well indeed, despite the fact that we are all aware of the film's secrets and know just when the jump scares are about to pop out. At this point, there is very little to say about the film that has not been said before. It has probably been discussed and analyzed more than any other Hitchcock film, and the books and articles written about it are legion. As a matter of fact, just last year, a new documentary, "78/52" (respective references to the number of setups and editing cuts), was released that centered on just the shower scene alone! I could certainly not improve on any of those commentaries, but would especially recommend to those who are interested Danny Peary's very informative article on the film, to be found in his indispensable reference book "Cult Movies 3." (It was Peary who first made me realize that the film gives us a woman named Crane who becomes the victim of a man who likes to stuff birds, and how the director makes his audience feel guilty by making us all feel like voyeurs throughout the picture.) The film contains so much to love that it is difficult to know where to begin. But let's start with the wonderful script that Joseph Stefano--who would go on to even greater fame a few years later as producer/writer for the classic TV show "The Outer Limits"--was able to come up with, based on Robert Bloch's 1959 novel. (Interestingly, the Norman Bates character in the novel is something of a big fat slob, on the order of a Victor Buono type; thus, Perkins was a very unlikely choice to play this particular role.) It is a wonderful script, witty and penetrating, that intersperses its shocks at just the right moments, and is perhaps never better than in the telling scene in which Norman and Marion converse in the parlor before she takes her good-night shower. The actors in the film are all marvelous, down to the smallest bit parts, and Hitchcock's manipulation of his audience, and the way he moves and places his camera (as in the spiraling descent into Marion's dead eyeball after the murder, and the overhead shot of Mrs. Bates attacking Arbogast), are by now legendary. Perhaps best of all, though, is Perkins. What a wonderful job he does here! Notice his hips sway as he ascends the stairs in the creepy Victorian mansion that is the Bates home, or the look of fear and then relief on his face as he attempts to sink that corpse-containing car in the nearby swamp. Amazingly, the audience sympathizes with him as he covers up for his homicidal mother, and that is no small feat. And, oh, let's not forget one of the most key elements in the entire film, that sensationally frightening score by the great Bernard Herrmann, composed solely of strings (violins and cellos); surely, one of the most instantly recognizable film scores ever created, and so very influential on future composers for horror pictures. "Psycho" was a groundbreaker and a trendsetter in many departments, but here's something that you may not have heard before: It was also the first film that ever showed the inside of a toilet bowl, a fact that caused all manner of uproar among the decency and censorship groups. (Isn't it funny what some people will choose to get upset about?) I could go on forever about this film, but I will leave you with this one fun fact: The shower curtain that I have right now in my bathroom at home is a clear one, and come to think of it, I have been purchasing see-through shower curtains for many decades now. Is this a subconscious effect brought on by this truly remarkable film? Could very well be! After all, if the Bates Motel had featured clear shower curtains in its rooms, Marion Crane might still be alive and well today....
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10/10
Spectacular!
20 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
We now come to the one and only film in my personal Top 10 list that is not a perfect motion picture; indeed, "You Only Live Twice"--the 5th outing in the currently still ongoing James Bond franchise, the longest-running franchise in the history of cinema--is very much a flawed film, with several moments of head-scratching stupefaction that might make the viewer wonder if he/she is witnessing a fever dream that 007 is having while lying in some tropical hellhole (and the lyrics of the film's beautiful theme song DO give us the words "this dream is for you...."). It is not the most violent and groundbreaking Bond film; that would be the first, "Dr. No." It is not the film that hews closest to its Ian Fleming source novel; that would be the second, "From Russia With Love." It is not the most perfect 007 film; that would be the third, "Goldfinger." It does not have the remarkable trio of gorgeous "Bond girls"--Lucianna Paluzzi, Claudine Auger and Martine Beswick--to be found in the fourth outing, "Thunderball," and it does not feature the most tear-jerking and heartbreaking moments in Bondom, as does the sixth,"On Her Majesty's Secret Service." But what "You Only Live Twice" DOES feature is action, and spectacle, and color; it is the biggest, most lavish film of the franchise, and despite its flaws, it has been the favorite of mine and many others (for example, Mike Myers, who blatantly used it as his template for the Austin Powers films) ever since it opened in June 1967. I have often told people that the first six Bond films are the only ones that really matter, and that all the others (18 others, at this point) are just for fun. And "You Only Live Twice," it seems to me, despite its many flaws and detractors, might be the most thrilling of that initial sextet. All five of the initial Bond films appear on my personal Top 100 Movies list, by the way, but this is the one that holds a special place for yours truly.

Near the beginning of this 5th Bond outing, M tells 007 that "this is the big one," and boy, do those words ever ring true. This is the first film in the 007 franchise that completely threw out the Ian Fleming source novel that it was based upon, only keeping the Japanese backdrop, and while Bond purists might object that this movie has nothing to do with Fleming's 1964 vision (which dealt with Bond investigating the Japanese suicide gardens of one Dr. Shatterhand, rather than S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s hijacking of Russian and American space capsules in an effort to precipitate WW3), and that the film is more sci-fi/adventure than the sexy spy thrillers that Ian Fleming had made popular, the fact remains that this Bond masterpiece is both the most visually spectacular entry in the 56-year history of the franchise, as well as the culmination of the four Sean Connery episodes that precede it. Sure, there are some things to carp about in this story, and many inconsistencies. Bond takes a martini that is "stirred, not shaken" (!), he conveniently has a safecracking device in his pocket just when he needs it, he magically has a ninja outfit under his fisherman's shirt and so on. But the movie is presented with such panache, and there is so much local Japanese color and scenery, and the sets are so very spectacular (there's that word again!), that these little slips just pale into insignificance. The battle at the end of this film, with ninjas pouring into the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. volcano lair, is one of the most exciting sequences in the history of Bondom; perhaps in the history of the action film. The Bond girls this time are both beautiful AND interesting, and Karin Dor makes for a sexy Bond enemy/lover. (In Bond movies, female enemies make for very strange bedfellows!) We finally get to see Ernst Stavro Blofeld in this outing, and Donald Pleasence does not disappoint (although, granted, he is NOT the Blofeld that Fleming had described). I have seen this movie at least 50 times since it first opened in June '67 (I saw it three times in its opening week alone!), and still thrill to its superb drive, color and action. The movie also features perhaps the loveliest of the Bond theme songs, sung by Nancy Sinatra, and all in all is a smashing entertainment package.

Some personal background history: Back in June '67, my father dropped me and my buddy Dave off at the (sadly long extinct) Prospect Theater in Flushing, Queens on a Saturday afternoon; the first weekend after "YOLT"'s opening. Dave and I had been friends for a short time, having, uh, Bonded back in day camp after discovering our mutual love of the Ian Fleming novels. We sat through the film two times in a row that afternoon, and as I said above, I saw the film again before the week was out. Back when I was a kid, I could think of no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than watching the first four Bond films on the big screen, at the (now sadly defunct) Queens Theater, which would often show them as double features. Though I was a preteen, for some reason, my parents felt it a safe proposition to just drop me off there for four hours while they did their thing (shopping). I must have seen those first four Bond movies in every possible double feature combination before "YOLT" premiered, and was thus well primed for this big event. The film blew Dave and I away that first weekend, and today, over four dozen viewings later, I still watch it with undiminished enthusiasm. What can I say? This movie brings out the kid in me, and makes me feel like I'm 12 again. And there is SO much to love in this film, despite the flaws mentioned above. The opening scene, in which Bond is "killed" while in bed with the gorgeous Tsai Chin (one of the few Bond actresses who would reappear, many years later, in another role; this time in "Casino Royale"); Bond's burial at sea, with its beautiful underwater photography (reminiscent of the recent "Thunderball") accompanied by a truly gorgeous piece of never-used-again background music; the vastly underrated fight that 007 has with a Japanese guard (played by Samoan wrestler Peter Maivia, who, five years later, would become the maternal grandfather of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson!) in the Osata Chemical Company building; that wonderful car chase, culminating with a helicopter-assisted "drop in the ocean"; the fight at Kobe dock, accompanied by the rousing "YOLT" theme song; the battle that Bond has over the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. volcano hideout in his "Little Nellie" gyrocopter (an action sequence that resulted in the real-life partial loss of a leg for the actual gyrocopter cameraman); the death of Helga Brandt (played by German actress Karin Dor, with whom I have been enamored to this day, and whose recent passing saddened me greatly) in Blofeld's piranha pool; the death of Aki, Bond's beautiful Japanese ally, by poison; and finally, that monumental final battle between the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. forces on one side and 007 and the ninja forces of the Japanese Secret Service on the other. This final segment, as I mentioned, very well might be the most visually spectacular (I keep coming back to that word!) sequence in the history of the action film, to this very day, and continues to amaze this viewer over half a century later. And while I'm on the subject, that colossal volcano set, designed by Ken Adam, is just absolutely remarkable, with its functioning monorails, spaceship landing pad, built-in observation windows, sliding crater-lake top and so on; a set that cost $1 million on its own to construct (ridiculous money to spend on a film set 50 years ago), and put together the old-fashioned way...with no green-screen special FX or computer enhancements.

I have perhaps been remiss in neglecting to mention the contributions of Akiko Wakabayashi (Aki) and Mie Hama (Kissy, although her name is never mentioned in the film itself), both of whom are lovely and appealing; along with Ms. Dor, still another Bondian trio of female pulchritude. And the film's script, by children's author Roald Dahl, of all people, is a clever one, with any number of witty lines, despite its inherent flaws. Although many have complained of Sean Connery's apparent lack of enthusiasm in the film, and his visible boredom with the James Bond role at this point, I must confess that I have never been able to discern it on screen. Nor can I understand the "Maltin Movie Guide"'s assertion that the film lacks "clever and convincing crisis situations"; are they kidding?!?! The film is filled with nothing but! Anyway, I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. This film might be the only one on my Top 10 list that could be called a "guilty pleasure," but my love and enthusiasm for it remain undiminished after half a century. The last time I watched this film was on its 50th anniversary, in June of last year, and I do believe that I'm about ready for another look. Arigato!
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The Apartment (1960)
10/10
One Of My All-Time Favorite Films...Laughswise And Feelingswise
19 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
After Billy Wilder came out with his hysterically funny and now-classic "Some Like It Hot" in 1959, many wondered how he could possibly top this truly inspired effort. The film had come at the tail end of a remarkable decade for the director; a decade that saw him come out with such films as "Sunset Blvd.," "Ace in the Hole," "Stalag 17," "Sabrina," "The Seven Year Itch" (one of his weakest films, sez me, but nevertheless highly popular, mainly due to Marilyn Monroe's iconic performance) and "Witness for the Prosecution." But as the new decade began (well, on June 15, 1960, anyway), Wilder stunned everyone by delivering a film that was perhaps the best he had ever done: the 1960 Best Picture Oscar winner "The Apartment." I first saw this film in the mid-'70s, at the now defunct Regency Theater on Broadway and 66th St., and for me, it was love at first watch. Since that evening, I have seen the film so many times that I could not even properly estimate the number, but it has to be at least 25, and most of those watches have been on the big screen. It is a film that never seems to grow old for me, dated as it might be in parts. I love every little bit of this movie, featuring as it does career-best performances by stars Jack Lemmon (OK, Lemmon would be better dramatically a few years later in "Days of Wine and Roses") and Shirley MacLaine, and an uncharacteristically cadlike role for the great Fred MacMurray (a last-minute replacement after Paul Douglas passed away). And, oh, that script...that wonderful script!

As most of the world knows by now--or should--the film deals with a poor office shlub named C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Lemmon), who has decided that the only way to climb to the top of the office heap is by lending out the key to his apartment so that his various bosses might have a place in which to carry out their extramarital affairs. (Why those affluent bosses cannot afford to just rent out a hotel room for their shenanigans is not explored, and may be justifiably deemed a drawback to an otherwise perfect script.) Trouble looms when Baxter falls in love with cute elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), who is having an affair with his own boss, played by Fred Mac. And things grow even worse when Bud finds Fran near dead in his bedroom, after the dumped and depressed woman attempts suicide on Christmas Eve. Yes, that's right: Even though "The Apartment" is one of the funniest comedies ever made, it surely does have a very dark streak, and one that pretty much stunned me the first time I saw it.

It is hard to know where to begin when singing the praises of this film, but first and foremost, again, is that remarkable script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, which throws jokes out willy-nilly and manages to build on those jokes throughout. Thus, the routine with "-wise," as hinted at in the film's poster, in which all three lead characters tend to add the suffix to their conversations ("marriagewise," "jobwise," etc.). The script generously gives the viewer any number of quotable lines, too. My favorite: when the elderly (probably Jewish) woman who lives in Bud's building complains about the weather, remarking "Must be all that misheGAS at Cape Canaveral!" I've been using that line for years now. Besides the marvelous performances turned in by the three leads (Oscar worthy all, sez me), there are also terrific supporting turns by Ray Walston, Edie Adams, Joan Shawlee and, particularly Jack Kruschen, as Bud's kindly neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss. The film sports a marvelous piece of recurring theme music that manages to pop into my head at the most unlikely moments, as well as any number of truly affecting scenes filled with great emotional pathos. My favorite: Bud looks into a cracked hand mirror and realizes that Fran has been one of the gals having an affair in his own apartment. The look on Lemmon's face in that cracked piece of glass is just priceless. Also featured in the film: possibly the best and the wildest office Xmas party ever depicted on film. "The Apartment" takes place, incidentally, for a significant part, between the Christmas holiday and New Year's Eve, and is THE most perfect film to watch during that time period. No wonder my beloved Film Forum often shows it during the final week of the year.

Writing in his essential film guide "Alternate Oscars," Danny Peary makes the case that "The Apartment" was not worthy of the Best Picture Oscar that it brought in, and that "Psycho" was more interesting and deserving that year. Much as I love that classic Hitchcock film, however, I have no problem whatsoever in how the Academy voted that year. For me, the Wilder film is pure entertainment. I might add that I was very happy when (the now disgraced) Kevin Spacey revealed, years back, that the reason he became an actor in the first place was because he was so very impressed with Lemmon's performance in this film! If you by any remote chance have never had the pleasure of seeing "The Apartment," on the big screen or small, I would surely recommend you putting it near the very top of your list. And don't wait for the last week of the year to do so. This is a film that can be enjoyed on any day of the year...laughswise, feelingswise or anywisewise!
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Snow Devils (1967)
6/10
Asiago, Fontina Or Robiola?
12 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
During the 1960s, the Italians proceeded to make impressive strides in their historic cinematic output. The old-master auteurs such as Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica, Visconti and Pasolini continued to put out quality product (to put it mildly, in the case of the first two), while up-and-comers such as Mario Bava and Sergio Leone helped to jump-start the nascent genres of Italian Gothic horror, the giallo film, and the so-called "spaghetti Western." The Italian comedies continued to flourish, as did the country's truly one-of-a-kind "sword and sandal" films. But there was one area in which the Italians, try as they might, just couldn't seem to make much of an impressive dent, it seems to me, and that was in the arena of sci-fi. Case in point: the 1967 film "The Snow Devils." Despite its ambitious story line, a top-tier actor in front of the camera and a respected director in charge of the production, the film, to my not-so-great surprise, fails to deliver in most departments. And yet, like all those inferior Italian sci-fi films of the period, cheesy as they are, this one remains good fun, somehow, nevertheless. My beloved "Psychotronic Encyclopedia," which usually has a high tolerance for this sort of dreckish fare, deems the film "very boring," but I somehow managed to be entertained by it. Certainly not anyone's idea of quality cinematic fare, the picture, cheesy as it is (I still have not decided whether it is more asiago, fontina or robiola in nature!), is yet one that you might comfortably settle down to watch with your favorite 8-year-old nephew sitting beside you.

In the film, we learn that the weather station near Mt. Kangchenjunga, in the Himalayas, has somehow been destroyed, and all its inhabitants killed. Sent to investigate is granite-jawed hunky dude Rod Jackson (played by Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, who many will recall from Bava's classic film of the previous year, "Kill, Baby, Kill), commander of the orbiting Gamma 1 space station, which itself is part of the UDSCO (United Democracies Space Command). Along with his second in command, Capt. Frank Pulasky (Goffredo Unger, who both looks and functions here like Scott Grimes' Lt. Gordon Malloy character in the new and hilarious TV program "The Orville"), and Lisa Nielson, whose fiance had gone missing after the Kangchenjunga disaster (and played by the lovely Ombretta Colli, here, unfortunately, sporting a hairdo of singular atrociousness), as well as a good dozen mountain porters, Jackson treks to the region of the weather station, near which a "high-energy proton field" has been detected that is, alarmingly, altering the very climate of the Earth. The polar ice caps have started melting, followed by the inevitable worldwide flooding. Ultimately, the team discovers the cause of the disasters: Blue-skinned, white-furred aliens from the planet Aytia, whose century-long presence in the mountains has been the source of the local yeti legend, are changing the Earth's temperature to adapt it to their own uses! Jackson and Co. manage to wipe out the aliens' installation, only to later discover a more shocking truth: An entire outpost of the cyanotic-looking aliens has been established on the Jovian moon Callisto, from which they plan to continue their attacks on our planet! And so, Jackson and his allies suit up and blast off for Jupiter, to attempt one do-or-die battle in outer space....

"The Snow Devils" starts off promisingly, and I must say that its first half--especially the scenes in which we see our brave team hiking through the Himalayas--is fairly well done. The film's theme song, by composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, is also striking; almost like a cross between a spaghetti Western tune written by Ennio Morricone and some psychedelic rock effort. But the picture falters in its second half, and the special effects that are utilized to showcase our team in space are of a truly embarrassing nature; almost on an Ed Wood level of awfulness. Trust me, you will be howling at the meteor swarm that our heroes pass through, a swarm that looks like some sparklers thrown at the camera lens. Director Antonio Margheriti, who had previously impressed me via his Gothic horrors "Castle of Blood" and "The Long Hair of Death," both starring the great "Queen of Horror" Barbara Steele, and who had already helmed such sci-fi outings as "Battle of the Worlds," "War of the Planets" and "Wild Wild Planet," does his usual competent job here, but he is ultimately let down by the cheapjack nature of the production. Special FX surely are not everything in a motion picture endeavor, but when they are as laughably bad as these are here, they can unfortunately torpedo a viewer's suspension of disbelief. "The Snow Devils" is surely not the worst way to spend 90 minutes, but as I say, it is surely an exercise in cheese. The Italians, by the way, would do a LOT better a few years later, with their classic sci-fi outing "The Green Slime." That one is surely an exercise in camp and cheese as well, but at least the FX are better, and it also features the great Luciana Paluzzi, who is undoubtedly a special effect in her own right....
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Split (IX) (2016)
7/10
A Dude With TOO Much Personality....
5 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Over the years, there have been any number of films that have dealt with lead characters who suffer with what the layman might term "split personality." Putting aside all the many iterations of the Jekyll & Hyde story, in 1957, audiences were given both "Lizzie," in which Eleanor Parker played a woman with three distinct personalities, and, five months later, the more well-known "The Three Faces of Eve," in which Joanne Woodward played a woman with the exact same predicament. In 1960, theatergoers were shocked out of their showers via their introduction to Tony Perkins' Norman Bates, a young man who was also his own mother, in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." The situation was played for laughs in 1963's "The Nutty Professor," with Jerry Lewis portraying the hapless Prof. Julius Kelp AND his alter ego, the Dean Martin-like Buddy Love. But you would have to take all the preceding alter egos, and perhaps toss in later films such as 1992's "Raising Cain" (in which John Lithgow sported three personalities) and 2007's "Sybil" (in which the titular character, played by Tammy Blanchard, possessed no fewer than 16!), to exceed the number of disparate types to be found living inside one person, in M. Night Shyamalan's most recent offering, 2017's "Split."

The film introduces us to a most unusual character...or should I say, "horde" of characters (no wonder the news media later refers to this personage as "The Horde"!). He is Kevin Wendell Crumb--brought to remarkable life by the Scottish actor James McAvoy--a Philadelphia native (as have been so many of the director/writer's previous lead characters) who suffers with the condition known as DID: dissociative identity disorder. As a matter of fact, his psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has identified no fewer than 23 (!) personalities residing inside his noggin, each waiting patiently in his or her "chair" for a chance to step forward "into the light." (And if this setup strikes some as being a bit improbable, I might add here that the real-life Eve evinced a full 22 personalities, and required a good 17 years of psychotherapy as a consequence!) Somehow, Crumb has managed to live a fairly low-key life in modern society, even managing to hold down a job as a dress designer, thanks to the talents of one of his many personae, Barry. But following a prank of a sexual nature perpetrated on him by a group of randy schoolgirls, Kevin snaps, and is soon seen kidnapping three young women in the parking lot of the King of Prussia Mall. Those three women--Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy)--are incarcerated in some kind of underground bunker, while their captor intimidates them as successive personalities of his step into the light. Thus, we get to see McAvoy essay a good half dozen of Kevin's 23 inner personae; for example, the 9-year-old Hedwig, the dressy Patricia, and the unflappably in-command Dennis. But Dr. Buckley grows increasingly concerned with her patient, when Dennis/Barry informs her that a 24th personality, which he terms "The Beast," is soon to emerge. And since the good doctor knows that each of Kevin's personalities can effectively transform his body chemistry as it enters the light, there is every reason for concern...especially since this Beast is said to be extremely large, very fast, very powerful, able to climb walls (!) and, as it turns out, somewhat cannibalistic as regards dietary requirements....

"Split" was produced on a budget of a mere $9 million and proved to be a box office smash, bringing in around $280 million all told. And there was very good reason for this. The film is a remarkably suspenseful affair, and every attempt that our trio of young prisoners makes to escape from their cell is a nerve-racking one. The three young actresses on display here are all terrific, especially Taylor-Joy. Her Casey character is both beautiful and interesting, and the director shows us her history in flashbacks that allow us to see why she is so well suited to survive in this horrendous situation (her father had trained her in outdoor shooting and survival skills), and why she is the introverted young lady that she is today (a bit of sexual molestation on the part of a skeevy uncle would do that for anyone!). The film makes good use of its autumnal scenery--Philly and its surroundings have never looked more gorgeous--and Shyamalan's script is a clever one. But best of all is McAvoy, whose sextuple performance is practically Oscar worthy. Not since Alex Guinness in 1949's "Kind Hearts and Coronets," in which the beloved British actor essayed no fewer than nine distinct roles, and perhaps Peter Sellers in 1964's "Dr. Strangelove," in which the actor gave the world three entirely different and truly memorable characters, has a performer attempted such a feat, AND brought it off as successfully. And for those who are wondering if Shyamalan once again pulls the rug out from beneath his audience's expectations with one of his patented surprise endings, the answer is a decided "yes"; an ending that sets the viewer up for a sequel that also ties into another of the director's previous films. I don't think I'm giving anything away here at this late date by saying that this sequel is to be entitled "Glass," and that it will be coming out in January 2019. Personally, it is a film for which I cannot wait....
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Ben (1972)
7/10
Rattus Rattus Flambe
31 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In light of the fact that the 1971 film "Willard" was such a box office smash, bringing in almost $10 million (pretty big money in those days), I suppose it was practically inevitable that a sequel was soon put into production. And sure enough, in June '72, almost a year to the day after "Willard" had had its premiere, that sequel, "Ben," did indeed arrive. Featuring all new characters, with the exception of its titular rodent star, the film yet picks up mere moments after the conclusion of the first, and indeed, the sequel's opening credits are scrawled over the final moments of that first film, to remind viewers of where things had left off.

In that first film's conclusion, young oddball Willard Stiles (well played by Bruce Davison), after having killed his hateful boss with the assistance of his well-trained rat army, led by the almost supernaturally intelligent black rat Ben, had decided to do away with the hundreds of rodents living in his Los Angeles home, and a battle royale had ensued, in which Ben and his cohorts had done Willard to his death. As the sequel begins, cops and reporters swarm over the Stiles abode, trying to figure out what has happened, while gawky neighbors look on, aghast. One of those neighbors is the Garrison family, consisting of a single mother (played by Rosemary Murphy), her teenage daughter Eve (Meredith Baxter), and Danny (Lee Harcourt Montgomery), a young kid with a heart condition. Danny, like Willard, is something of a loner, but a talented one: He plays piano, writes songs, and is something of an amateur puppeteer. While Ben and his army terrorize the neighborhood--killing cops, causing traffic accidents, breaking into and trashing a supermarket, invading a candy factory and causing a near riot in a women's health spa--Danny befriends the intelligent superrodent. To the viewer's astonishment, Danny even kisses the furry critter, taking it to bed with him and telling it "You're the best friend I ever had." And sadly enough, I suppose that, for poor Danny, that statement is indeed true...especially when Ben instructs a few of his henchmen to assist Danny when he is being pushed around by a brattish bully. But real trouble looms when the authorities finally get wind of where Ben and his crew of thousands are holing up (and perhaps I should add here that the hundreds of rats in "Willard" seem to have enjoyed a dramatic population growth in this second film)--namely, in the catacombs of the sewer system--and another battle royale begins, as the cops and local engineers gear up with flamethrowers, high-powered rifles, water hoses and jackhammers to wipe out this pestilential scourge once and for all....

"Ben" maintains a light tone for the most part, and indeed, many of the film's rat attack scenes--especially the one in the health spa--are played largely for laughs. The picture only gets serious toward its final 20 minutes, when Eve chases Danny through that sewer system, while a truly ferocious battle swirls around them. I'm not sure if "no animals were harmed in the making of this picture," as many films proclaim (not this one, it should be noted), but if that IS indeed the case, some truly outstanding special effects were brought to the fore here, as it really does look as if hundreds of rodents are scampering before the onslaught of those flamethrowers while at the same time being roasted alive. What I cannot understand is the "Maltin Movie Guide"'s assertion that the film boasts "gory visuals"; while there are any number of scenes in which a person is covered with rodents here, I did not see a single drop of the red stuff once. Actually, this is a film that might make perfect fare for watching with your favorite 8-year-old, as Montgomery is as cute and appealing as can be. The song that he composes on the piano for his buddy, "Ben," is one that you may well recall as having been sung by Michael Jackson, heard here during the picture's end credits; the song was Oscar nominated, losing to "The Morning After" from "The Poseidon Adventure." As compared to the first film, the sequel is certainly a lesser affair, perhaps because it lacks the fine supporting contributions of Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke and Elsa Lanchester from that first outing. Still, here, the late Joseph Campanella (as the head cop on the case), Arthur O'Connell (as a wisecracking reporter) and Kenneth Tobey (as the No. 1 engineer) do get to add some welcome gravitas to the shenanigans. Surprisingly, director Phil Karlson, who had previously been responsible for such marvelous noir films as "Kansas City Confidential," "5 Against the House" and "The Phenix City Story," and who, in '73, would go on to helm the highly popular "Walking Tall," offers up some fairly pedestrian work here; "Ben" surely could have benefited from a bit more style and suspense. Still, the film, uh, squeaks by as a moderately acceptable entertainment. "You sure have a big family, Ben," Danny tells his buddy as he visits its home, deep in the L.A. sewer system, and I suppose that "Ben" the movie might be a good choice to watch with yours....
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